State-based panel hopes to ease information sharing
The emerging customer-oriented approach to e-government has given new impetus to a 2-year-old federally funded project designed to improve information sharing across federal, state and local government boundaries.
The initiative, funded by the Office of Justice Programs and managed by the National Association of State Information Resource Executives (NASIRE), began as an effort to make it easier for law enforcement agencies at all levels of government to exchange data electronically.
But the pressure to give the public easy access to information and services across government boundaries is pushing other agencies to share information as well.
So NASIRE is taking a step back and focusing on the design of the under-lying networks that make information sharing possible. The state organization recently took bids to develop a template that agencies might use in designing their networks and systems.
The template essentially should incorporate the design principles and technical standards "that you ignore at your peril if you want to be effective at digital government or the national sharing of information," said Gerry Wethington, chairman of NASIRE's Information Architecture committee and chief information officer of Missouri.
NASIRE describes the template as an adaptive enterprisewide architecture. An information technology architecture might be described as a blueprint for developing an organization's IT backbone; the template, then, is a blueprint for developing blueprints. "Adaptive" is key because the template must be able to support a wide variety of applications, and it must be applicable as technology changes.
The template will not define the inner workings of networks and systems that agencies build. Rather, it will focus on how those systems integrate with others. Ideally, if governments develop their networks and systems using the same template, they will have an easier time making their systems work together, Wethington said.
No agency will be required to use the template, but NASIRE believes e-government provides a compelling incentive, particularly because of the latest efforts to design customer-friendly Web portals.
Customer-friendly means organizing a Web site based on how people look for services, rather than on which agencies are delivering those services.
The integration of information and services at the design level requires integrating information from different government systems behind the screen. That's why architecture is so important, said Bob Greeves, a policy adviser and independent consultant working with the Office of Justice Programs.
Like the blueprint for a building, "you want somebody to lay down all the different pieces so you can make it mesh," Greeves said. "This is going to be the framework for allowing water to flow through the pipes and electricity to flow through the lines."
The Justice program, now a subset of the architecture project, will be the first test case for translating information architectures into actual data exchanges. But NASIRE plans to expand the project into other disciplines, such as education, transportation and health and human services, Wethington said.
In some cases, agencies will not want to share information because of privacy concerns, said Carol Kelly, vice president and services director for electronic government strategies at META Group Inc., a Stamford, Conn., consulting firm. But "you want to build that adaptability [into your architecture] so that when you want to share information, you can," she said.
NASIRE plans to unveil the template at its annual conference in September.
But while NASIRE hopes to test the concept during the next year on a limited basis, it will take many more years to bring it to fruition, just because of its complexity, Greeves said.
"We are making headway, but it's not going to be fully implemented nationwide for decades, probably," he said. Still, "our motto is "progress is more important than perfection.'"
Finding common ground
The National Association of State Information Resource Executives asked bidders to explain their proposals for an adaptive enterprisewide architecture in several ways:
Detail the significance of technology architecture in a digital government environment. Present the business case for adopting architecture within government. Use anecdotal stories where the value of architecture has been demonstrated. Use parallel environments in the presentation of architecture — for example, the standardization of railroad gauges support cross-country transportation. Create a pictorial framework presenting the entire architectural model. Develop a lexicon of terms specific to the architecture.
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