Out of bounds
- By Brian Robinson
- Sep 10, 2001
Everyone acknowledges that the vision behind Government Without Boundaries is what e-government is all about, but that doesn't mean it's been easy to whip up enthusiasm for the year-old program. The appointment of Mark Forman as the federal government's information technology czar may change that.
As associate director of IT and e-government at the Office of Management and Budget, Forman has made easier citizen access to government services one of his top goals. And his boss, OMB Deputy Director Sean O'Keefe, has pushed that as an argument for Congress to fund President Bush's e-government initiatives.
"We are focused on building easy-to-find, one-stop shops for citizens — creating single points of easy-to-access high quality government services," O'Keefe recently told the Senate's Governmental Affairs Committee.
All of that appears to fit perfectly with the Government Without Boundaries target of creating a virtual pool of online information and services that spans all three levels of government—federal, state and local—and that anyone can access from just one site on the World Wide Web.
One of Forman's first steps since his June appointment has been to form an e-government task force that will identify specific actions needed to achieve those kinds of strategic improvements in services to citizens, business and government.
"I don't think that can do anything other than give a much higher priority to our program," said John Clark, the Government Without Boundaries project director at the General Services Administration.
Until last year, however, 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 project had gone nowhere, despite its obvious value ever since the Web had solidified into a fact of modern life. The problem was that other facts of life 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 executives were putting into their 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 GSA'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, 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, Va. "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."
Having people all get together at the same table from day one might prove a novel concept for some of the federal government participants, said James Mackison, a policy analyst at OIS and one of the project leaders. But the advantages will outweigh any of these early doubts, he believes.
"We are trying to set up a framework so that people can work with each other across all of the government," he said. "Government Without Boundaries will be a true collaboration and will not simply be a case of the wrapping it into whatever else is going on in the federal government."
It could actually prove to be an asset, Mackison said, since the federal government will, for the first time, have a direct channel to the kinds of innovative work that is going on at the state and local levels. The program could be an ideal mechanism to identify things that the federal government should be involved in, but otherwise would know nothing about.
It did take some time to figure out what to do with Government Without Boundaries, said Martha Dorris, OIS deputy director. The first ideas were vague, though program leaders 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 Clark. Government Without Boundaries is a self-funded project, and, if people are required to put money in to participate, 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."
The Interior Department already runs a similar Web site (www. recreation.gov) that includes information from all agencies in the department, as well as from the Agriculture Department's Forest Service, in a database that can be searched according to various themes. Those searches can be narrowed down by state and include links to various local Web sites. The site doesn't include any state and local government information directly, nor are there any reported plans to include that information.
New Jersey and Virginia officials, together with county and municipal governments in those states, have taken the lead on the Government Without Boundaries 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 multiagency initiative.
The New Jersey project is not that technically challenging, New Jersey's 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 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.
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 OIS' Mackison. "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.
OIS officials also hope 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 Boundaries 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.
Robinson is a freelance journalist based in Portland, Ore. He can be reached at [email protected]