Renewing Old Portals Part II: Governance

The second of a series, excerpted a strategy paper from the Center for Digital Government that examines some of the key issues to consider when upgrading or renewing a government web portal serving citizens.

by / January 14, 2008
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Governance is the cornerstone of the portal's foundation on which every other component rests. Even a top-notch crew -- including a project management office and well-trained and experienced personnel -- cannot make up for failures of governance. Many states have solid governance structures for information technology, performance and quality monitoring programs, or other cross-cutting initiatives.

Colorado created the Statewide Internet Portal Authority (SIPA) to oversee the official portal and grow it into a comprehensive and consolidated self-service delivery channel across agency and jurisdictional lines. The SIPA board includes representation from the legislature, the judiciary, local government and the private sector, plus the governor's office and the active participation of cabinet members from the departments of revenue, employment and regulatory affairs. This broadly-based ownership group resolves and reconciles competing needs for modifications and additions before issuing change orders to the crew on the ground.

In terms of governance makeup, Arkansas and Kansas have also taken a broad view and included representation from constituencies that tend to be underrepresented in governance models. Kansas and Arkansas have purposefully included private sector representatives from key user groups to ensure that the interests of external users are pursued.

The other key characteristic here is setting priorities -- clarifying that government operates in an environment in which resources are always finite and governance is needed to prioritize how resources are used to identify, develop, test, and market the solutions used to expand and enhance the portal. One of the benefits of a solid governance model is that quick, decisive action can be implemented without having to navigate the typical bureaucratic process of state government. If a governance board has the capability to set priorities, then this approach takes advantage of quick implementation without sacrificing government oversight of the project.

Colorado, Arkansas, Kansas and other states have learned by doing that governance is a lot easier to implement with a single-purpose transactional service than with one that relies on a network of service delivery. Yet it is in the context of complex networked service delivery where governance matters most, providing the formalized and institutionalized rules that help keep the foundation level and the walls plumb while matching the interdependent components with the structural capacity needed to operate consistently and sustainably.

While individual tradespersons focus on the intricacies of their craft, governance is the one place where you can see to the edges of the whole project -- see synergies and resolve conflicts among the trades and ensure that the whole is more than just the sum of its parts. So it is with government modernization where -- like other sectors -- new value in extended capacity relies on getting an enterprise view of data. The ability to share data across organizational lines is a key factor in solving modern societal crises whether they are pandemics, terrorist attacks or natural disasters. Yet we do not have to wait for new social forms of networked organizations to break out of traditional bureaucratic structures to begin sharing data today. Creative organizations can rely upon standard "tools of the trade" that are ingrained into government organizations today, instead of waiting for the next new thing (or technology) to make it all possible.

The tools of governance -- such as contracts, memoranda of understanding, service-level agreements, statutes, executive orders, an issue prioritization, escalation and resolution process, including rules and policies for quick decisions on project approvals and oversight -- bring proven old-school disciplines to the important task of formalizing the work that formerly discrete organizations or entities do together while bolstering an effective governance structure.

Working with Contracts and Vendors
Much construction industry education from master builder associations and other such groups still echoes the caution "Caveat emptor" -- Latin for "Let the buyer beware" -- which, prior to statutory law, was the property law doctrine

that controlled the sale of real property after the closing date.

The industry's contemporary advice to home buyers adapts well to prospective portal owners as they seek out a contractor. The builder is as important as the style of portal --contractors should have a strong record doing similar work and stand behind their workmanship through warranties that subscribe to codes of ethics. It is also useful to see their previous work and ask some important questions of other home ... err, portal ... owners about their contractors:
- Are you happy with your home? The answer should tell you about the contractor's track record, experience, specializations.
- Did the builder do what was promised in a timely manner? The answer should tell you about the contractor's ability to deliver projects on time, on budget and within scope.
- Would you buy another home from this builder? There is nothing like a recommendation from a peer as to the contractor's ability to succeed in an environment like your own. The answer here should also provide insight as to the underlying relationship about whether an existing customer would go down the road with the same contractor.

There are lessons here for those states that have taken a DIY -- do-it-yourself -- approach to online service delivery. Washington and Michigan have been among the most| independent in the build-out of their portals, but have relied heavily on a number of trusted general contractors, subcontractors and tradespersons when it comes to high-value renovations and additions.

Many states have recognized that e-government management is not a portal core competency and have chosen to outsource the work -- in almost all cases, to private sector providers with a proven track record in this specialty. Once the vendor is selected, carefully constructed contracts are essential to establishing the agreements that governments have with IT vendors. First, contracts should closely mirror the original scope of work found in bids and proposals. Requesting proposals for one suite of services and expecting (or demanding) a very different set once the contract is written introduces relationship risks before the relationship even begins. Moreover, major changes can affect the content of cost proposals which, if significantly revised, can lead to numerous procurement delays and problems, including time-consuming and costly appeals -- sometimes even ending up in court.

Chief among potential legal exposures for government renovations is ill-defined ownership of intellectual property (IP), namely software. A clear explanation and common understanding of who owns what and who has rights of use (during and after the contract period) are absolutely critical to IT contracting in government. Software is copyrighted as a work, yet most software is a hybrid of earlier works and not built from scratch. Either way, each government entity must assure that it has the proper IP rights and training to operate the government portal if a third-party vendor is terminated or not renewed.

Contracts must account for the uneven origins of intellectual property used in the "This Old Portal" renovations so the portal owner is held harmless for the materials used in its restoration. As most contracting professionals will attest, relying on a work-for- hire alone simply will not do. For their part, states may not need or want to actually own the software rights -- preferring instead to license the software from third parties in perpetuity, whether through commercial off-the-shelf approaches, such as office applications, code sharing or re-use pacts with other jurisdictions, or even the open source community.

The complexity and dynamic nature of intellectual property, and the legal environment that surrounds it, requires continual vigilance by those who use it and contract for it in bulk -- and that includes government. A growing number of jurisdictions have hired or contracted specialists to provide guidance on intellectual property issues.

Working across Agency or Jurisdictional Lines
Many states allow organizations to enter into a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with various government entities, including multiple jurisdictions, branches of government and even private and civic (nonprofit) organizations.

These memoranda, if properly constructed, will clearly outline the mutual roles and responsibilities of cooperating agencies and organizations. A memorandum of understanding commonly includes:
- designation of the lead agency;
- description of the contribution of resources from partner organizations such as staffing, office space and funds;
- responsibilities of the partners to the project.

One note of caution is required here. When working across branches of government or state and local government, an extended period of time may elapse between the initiation of a memorandum and its signed execution. Within one multi-agency project in Utah the memoranda took longer than the development of the application. Multiple layers of review, including legal, required multiple drafts before the agreement was finalized. That said, if the governance process and procedures for review and approvals of MOUs are well documented and executed, then delays can be avoided and the overall process will be more streamlined than if each agency or jurisdiction follows standard procurement rules for RFPs.

Working Within the Legal Framework
Statutes, rules, executive orders and policies provide legitimacy to governance processes and other key components of government modernization including but not limited to architecture and executive championship. Most states have boards that have been created to oversee their e-government programs or have been adapted for that purpose. As discussed above, boards can be established either through legislation, executive order or through a contract with a third party responsible for services.

When transactional service implementations were not getting off the ground in Utah in 1998 the chief information officer (CIO) initiated a campaign with the legislature to mandate electronic service delivery requiring certain services to be online by a specific target date. This resulted in the Digital State Act, which gave state agencies the extra push to begin implementing e-government initiatives. Michigan and Indiana, for example, continue to rely on executive orders from previous administrations to promote electronic government. Both are considered among the top digital states in the nation and frequently win awards for their portals. One specific legacy of Michigan's executive order is a vast store of portable document format (PDF) files resulting in 65 million citizens' downloads of high-demand government forms.

The full strategy paper can be obtained from the Center for Digital Government at