A basic function of government is to deliver services effectively and efficiently - something that public officials have repeatedly found easier to commit to in theory than in practice. As technology has become an increasingly important service delivery tool, government IT agencies have seen their missions expanded beyond consolidating server rooms and optimizing back-end software.

It's not just about building the right technology infrastructure anymore. Infrastructure - and more specifically, data - must be organized so that governments have the right tools and metrics for governing.

Video: Micheline Casey is leading a strategy to connect data held by Colorado, the federal government, and cities and counties.

This insight recently was put into practice in Colorado, where Gov. Bill Ritter, the Legislature and the state's technology decision-makers worked together to coalesce a statewide data strategy with the hope of using information held by agencies at all levels - federal, state, county and city - to help make government work better. This long-range vision and enterprise-level effort, which legislation mandates will continue through the rest of the decade, is just beginning.

Colorado's data strategy is unfolding concurrently with its IT consolidation launched in 2007 - and that's no accident.

"We've realized that really getting a fundamental set of visibility measurements around the data we have is critically important," said Colorado Chief Data Officer Micheline Casey, who's leading the data strategy implementation. "In terms of sustaining long-term services that we hope to roll out to citizens and improving our service delivery and understanding how we can manage government better, data is the core set that ties all of those things together."

Although much progress has been made in little more than a year since the strategy began, a mountain of work remains. Casey likens the task to "trying to eat an elephant." But if Colorado can someday tame that beast, officials hope to capture data once, share it among all levels of government and visualize it, so participating governments can improve intelligence, analytics and performance management.

A Full Slate

Colorado's data strategy stems from two pieces of legislation passed during the last two years. The first called for a statewide data sharing protocol and the second formed a Government Data Advisory Board comprising state, city and county representatives charged with writing a strategic plan.

The laws didn't provide additional funding, so instead, state CIO Michael Locatis reorganized the Governor's Office of Information Technology to make the data initiative a priority. He gave Casey, who is also the state's director of identity management, the additional title of "chief data officer" to denote her expanded role. Locatis believes Casey's duties as the "CDO" are unique and that this new C-level position may become common across the country. "We really wanted to punctuate the importance of data in the 'business-ization' of government," Locatis said, "especially in light of the enormous fiscal crisis local and state governments are going through."

Casey's background is a natural fit. With more than a decade's worth of identity management experience in companies like ChoicePoint, she is well versed on the issues that will intersect in the state data strategy. These include data security and data inventorying, and what stakeholders hope will someday become a single sign-on - one user name and password for each citizen when interacting with government, no matter the agency or service.

For now, Casey and her organization are trying to take the first step: inventorying all the data that's owned, available, siloed and shared across the entire state - including school districts, state agencies, prisons and social services, to name a few.

How is Colorado doing it? Casey's staff is piloting a tool that captures all state data and work processes - organized by business lines like transportation, education, etc. - and aggregates them into a database. The state was about 20 percent done with the project in May, she said.

Once the state has a clear picture of the data it has, then it can begin the task of identifying duplicative and overlapping data sets, and finding opportunities for statewide sharing. For example, the state hopes to learn how many times public school students must input personal information like Social Security numbers or home addresses to apply for reduced-cost lunches, counseling or other social services. Or the state may discover ways to share GIS layers more efficiently among cities and counties, which might improve flood prevention or building-code enforcement. And someday, the state may be able to bring together a single look at an individual citizen from early childhood to early adulthood, thereby identifying risk factors and patterns that contribute to crime or other social problems.

But all that is likely years away.

An Eye on the Next Generation

For now, Locatis and Casey are banking on the success of a few data sharing programs focused on children to prove that the statewide data strategy is feasible. One is a state-to-local data exchange that began about a year ago for sharing juvenile justice information among several participating agencies, including the state's departments of Education, Human Services, Youth Corrections and Public Health, along with courts, the Office of Information Technology and local governments like Jefferson County. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is eying Colorado's project as a possible model for children and family services nationwide, Casey said.

The state-to-local data exchange is designed to give a clearer picture of the health, social services and educational backgrounds of children in the penal system. "This actually can get serious, because when looking at releasing a child back out, they don't have all the right information about guardianship," Casey said, adding that it can cause confusion and liability issues if parents are divorced or have restraining orders filed against a child.

Developing a comprehensive view of a child's interactions with social services, the public school system and corrections was a key reason that state Rep. Debbie Benefield, D-Jefferson, sponsored legislation to create the statewide data strategy.

"When you try to deliver quality education services to a child, you need all of the data exchange information," Benefield said. "And what happens in this state is that different departments and different agencies may be delivering those services. Then we get the feds mixed up in it, and you start having all these different areas that have information regarding that child, and they're relevant as to how you're going to move forward - if you could just share the information."

In a separate effort, Colorado is among several states pursuing funding from the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top fund, which is awarding competitive grants in part for "building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction." Although Colorado didn't win during the first round of Race to the Top funding, state officials still hope that the data strategy and an education subcommittee formed within the Government Data Advisory Board will drive the creation of a system that aggregates data for a student's entire school career, from preschool to higher education. The concept is known as P-20 in Colorado, and it's been around for a while.

Dan Domagala, CIO of the Colorado Department of Education and an education subcommittee member, said data siloing continues to be a major challenge. "A lot of it, in my opinion, is establishing trust between the agencies," he said. "I think the cultural thing is more difficult than the technology piece because we are exchanging data, although it's rudimentary right now. We have the ability to link students from one agency to another, and we want to use technology to make that more efficient to where we quickly exchange data."

But everyone needs an incentive for sharing their data, he added.

The Culture Challenge

Casey admits that although she has widespread buy-in for the data initiative, changing the government's culture so that data sharing becomes routine "is extremely difficult to deal with." To make sharing as easy as possible, Casey and the data advisory board continue to work on governance and security so there's a standardized way to exchange data across the enterprise.

In the coming months, the state will release standards for data naming, stewardship, ownership, retention, quality and other categories. Part of that effort includes designing a memorandum of understanding (MOU) template that can be used across the government, a document that Casey said will come in the second half of 2010.

Of course, the larger goal is to motivate agencies to actually share data through an MOU. The paperwork alone is not enough. The hard truth is that many local Colorado governments rely on their data for revenue, charging fees to each other and to citizens for raw data like GIS layers. "We want to look at certain data sets that we feel, from a transparency and open government perspective, should be available, and figure out ways that counties can add value-added services to the data," Casey said. "We don't want them to take a revenue hit."

The Government Data Advisory Board quickly realized that it couldn't wipe away how things have been done the last 20 or 30 years. For example, as Colorado attempts to build out the parameters for a concept it calls a Unique ID - a master identifier for citizens that will map to agencies and update whenever a person changes his or her address, name, etc. - the state chose a "leave and layer" solution that will operate with existing legacy systems.

Casey and Locatis hope that kind of unobtrusive approach - along with efforts to involve as many stakeholders as possible in the rule-making process - will convince their partners within the state, counties and cities that the data strategy can work. They are optimistic that the state's ambitious agenda for data will eventually pay off.

"We're already finding folks embracing major components of what we're doing from a legislative, policy and innovation standpoint," Locatis said, "but also from how we're implementing all of this from an operational perspective. Our data strategy has put us in a unique position to be a leader on grant applications for Race to the Top, statewide longitudinal data systems, for education and for health information exchange."

Check back with Colorado in a few years, he said.

 

Matt Williams  |  Associate Editor