Out of bounds

Up until last year, when federal, state and local chief information officers

got together at the annual meeting for the National Association of State

Chief Information Officers (NASCIO), the idea of Government Without Boundaries

was an obvious goal but in an intangible, somewhere-down-the-road way.

Creating a virtual pool of online information and services for all three

levels of government had been an obvious goal ever since the World Wide

Web solidified into a fact of modern life, but another fact of life was

that other things always seemed to get in the way of doing something about

it.If it wasn't the Year 2000 problem, then it was the time each executive

was putting into his or her own government's efforts to develop Web-based

services. The will was there, but getting together enough warm bodies proved

a show-stopper.

Then, last year, it just seemed the right time.

"I have personally been interested in this for a long time," said Wendy

Rayner, New Jersey's CIO and one of the main instigators of the Government

Without Boundaries program. "We were all as busy as ever, but we realized

that, if it was ever to be, something had to happen. We had to find a catalyst."

That came from the federal General Services Administration's Office

of Intergovernmental Solutions (OIS). The office agreed to take on the task

of coordinating the program and organizing the collaboration and planning

among a range of governmental organizations.

The result could be that, in just a few years, anyone who wants to know

anything about government or a government service any government service

could simply click a subject button on his or her state or local Web site.

Any information needed about that and related subjects would be made available

in a neat package of material.

GSA, working with state and local governments in two states, has begun

a pilot program of the concept with a portal for parks and recreation information.

More pilot programs could soon follow.

The program's benefits for government are more difficult to decipher.

Allowing a seamless form of e-procurement across all three levels of government

is one possible outcome, for example, but it's unclear how this kind of

virtual linkup could manage that.

Nevertheless, because many of the programs state and local governments

have to implement begin life at the federal level, handed down as mandates,

the opportunity for closer working relationships among the governments is

reason enough for Government Without Boundaries. "As it is now, the federal

government talks to the state government about these matters, and then the

state talks to us at the local level," said David Molchany, CIO for Fairfax

County in Virginia. "If we could all be at the same table to begin with,

then local government would have much better input into these programs.

And that's desirable, given that we are the ones who are ultimately responsible

for delivering the services these programs require."

However, it took some time to figure out what to do with Government

Without Boundaries, said Martha Dorris, OIS deputy director. The first ideas

were vague, though they decided to take an "easy as it goes" approach and

start off with just a few participants and pilot projects. They would then

identify the lessons learned and potential problem areas before expanding

the program.

That's proved to be a prudent approach, because they've already learned

enough to change the program's direction from using both youth services

and parks for the initial pilot projects to just focusing on parks, Dorris

said.

"We decided to go this way because park services [are] an area of maturity

at all levels of government" and already have an extensive presence on government

Web sites, Dorris said. "We wanted to do something that will have an immediate

impact [with governments], and parks consistently [show] up as the No. 1

or No. 2 priority in citizen response" to surveys of government Web site

use.

It will also help to draw other people into Government Without Boundaries

in the future, said John Clark, the project's director at GSA. Government

Without Boundaries is a self-funded project, and, if people are required

to put money in to be a participant, it's more attractive to them if they

know they can get some money back.

Parks are at the center of many government tourism and recreation services,

he pointed out, and anything that helps bring more people into parks puts

dollars into the community.

"To that extent," Clark said, "having parks as the first channel of

service for Government Without Boundaries is an incentive for people to

play."

New Jersey and Virginia officials, together with county and municipal

governments in those states, have taken the lead on the parks pilot projects.

New Jersey officials are developing an online demonstration program that

will link information on events at local, state and federal parks throughout

the state.

Virginia leaders are tackling the development of a taxonomy, or subject

tree, that will provide a kind of card catalog of tagged information that

will allow government Webmasters to integrate links for Web pages from other

governments and agencies into their own sites.

Illinois and Maryland officials have also committed to Government Without

Boundaries, though so far they have not defined what their pilot projects

will be. Federal government participants, apart from GSA, include the

Social Security Administration, the Interior and Treasury departments, and

the Simplified Tax and Wage Reporting System Program, a multi.agency initiative.

The New Jersey project is not that technically challenging, Rayner said,

because it's basically meant to show the feasibility of using HTML links

to provide an integrated calendar of events. The state calendar was already

in place, so it's more a matter of bringing in those other links and making

the calendar that results as user-friendly as possible.

The Virginia pilot project is more complex, because the taxonomy and indexed

list of information have to be created. But those tasks are not technically

challenging, said Bette Dillehay, Virginia's deputy secretary of technology.

The main questions will center on policy, and how to get state agencies

to provide full access to the kinds of information needed.

The result of Virginia's pilot project, however, will be worth any of

the hassles because the process will allow Webmasters at any level of government

to automatically attach indexed information to their own sites. At the local

level, Webmasters could reach out beyond the government sites to include

information from other community Web resources.

The taxonomy works by using metatags. These tags serve as pointers to

other tags, making it possible to group information so it's easier to search.

It's as if you were to take a very detailed index of a book and create a

higher-level index, so readers could pick out which general categories to

sort through for the information they want, rather than thumbing through

the whole index.

Although the first demonstration will be for parks information, the

process could be used for any information that can be indexed this way.

"Virginia is basing much of its approach to online services around the

concepts of e-government and communities," Dillehay said. "Since this process

is ultimately portable and scalable, it can be used by any community regardless

of the buy-in by the state or other sectors of government. At the local

level, it will be a very powerful tool."

Other elements that will have to be developed in order for Government

Without Boundaries to progress are interoperability standards and a description

of the architecture that will best suit this vision of seamless government.

Organizers have only just started with those, said James Mackison, a policy

analyst at OIS.

"We are trying to get people on board now who can help with this," he

said.

The participants acknowledge that getting people at all levels of government

involved in Government Without Boundaries may take time and that cultural

issues could prove more of a problem than technical barriers. But they realize

that tangible progress needs to be shown if it's to be sold as a project

with legs.

New Jersey expected to have a version of its expanded events calendar

online in August, while Virginia officials hope that this month they will

have a model of its indexing process that can be implemented and replicated

for use at different levels of government.

OIS also hopes to have a rough draft of the government architecture

available in the fall for comments by state and local governments, Dorris

said. The first phase of the Government Without Borders project should end

in December, with publication of the first "Lessons Learned" report.

Progress after that depends on just what these lessons are, what other

services participants choose to develop and what other states and local

governments opt to join the effort. But 2003 is the tentative target for

the final phase of Government Without Boundaries whatever that may be

to be declared successfully accomplished.

And that should be fine, believes Elizabeth Miller, the executive director

of NASCIO.

"With any project, people always want it to go faster," she said, "but

good progress has been made. We hope more people will be drawn into the

project as more services, such as health care, are involved, and accomplishing

that will be a challenge because everyone has different targets for the

services they want to focus on."

"But it doesn't lack for enthusiasm, and that's the best thing," Miller

said. "As long as they come up with a clear, consistent set of guidelines,

I think it's something people will buy in to."

Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached

at hullite@mindspring.com.

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