Tread lightly

Government officials make it clear they see not only the opportunity but also the need for agencies to partner with industry. Unfortunately, like teenagers who want to begin dancing but don't know the steps, agencies are likely to step on some toes in the process.

Such is the case with the Geospatial One-Stop initiative, an effort to develop the standards and systems needed to allow federal, state and local agencies to share geographic information systems data.

The Interior Department, the lead agency, assigned the task of developing an underlying architecture and portal prototype to the Open GIS Consortium Inc., whose members include industry, government and academic organizations. But several months later, Interior decided to hedge its bets by asking ESRI, a consortium member, to work separately on the same task.

This plot twist reflects the tension that increasingly underlies the federal government's relationship with industry.

Federal contracting officers historically have made a point not to favor one vendor over another, in the interest of fairness and healthy competition. So the government has had a vested interest in supporting industry standards, which theoretically enables agencies to use a mix of vendors' products.

But industry usually arrives at standards slowly, if at all, and standards-based systems have a reputation of being the poorer cousins of systems built on proprietary technology, with all their bells and whistles. What's a government agency to do?

Interior, in fact, may have ended up in the right place, despite its clumsy footwork. The federal government should support standards efforts, but agencies need to weigh the benefits of standards against the risks of receiving technology that is either too late or simply insufficient. Competition, even in the standards arena, is healthy.

That competition, though, must be managed, which is where Interior failed. It's difficult because standards organizations are inherently unstable, having members who must both compete and cooperate.

Whether working with a single vendor or a consortium, agencies must plans their steps carefully. Partners will only go so far if you keep stomping on their feet.

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