E-GOVERNMENT 101

Pre-req: Must be a Washington state employee willing to head to school to learn the ABCs of delivering government services on the Web.

by / March 29, 2001 0
When Washington launched its digital government initiative several years ago, state officials soon realized they needed a new breed of bureaucrat.

To make digital government work, the state had "to make online service part of the core competence" at all of its agencies, said Steve Kolodney, Washingtons CIO and director of the Department of Information Services (DIS). To achieve that, "you need a way to train people to be revolutionaries in organizations -- people who know how to do these things and think they make sense."

Dale Wallace is one of Washingtons new revolutionaries. Last month, the information technology systems specialist at the states Employment Security Department graduated from Washingtons training ground for e-government experts: the Digital Government Applications Academy.

As a student in the academy, Wallace helped procure an e-forms package to become the de facto standard for use by all state agencies. He helped develop a template that agencies can use to build their own e-forms. At the same time, he worked on an application for Employment Security -- an online form that allows businesses to file their quarterly unemployment insurance tax and wage information.

This month, Employment Security expects to make a beta version of UI FastTax Web available to a small number of companies filing tax information for the first quarter. "Provided that goes well, in July -- when theyll be filing their second quarter information -- well be ramping up a greater number of users," Wallace said.

Back to School

Washington founded the Digital Government Applications Academy in December 1999. The idea was to have "a separate place in government where agencies can pull together outside the boundaries of their own individual agencies," said David Kirk, the academys dean. In this new institution, government officials are free to develop new applications and new ways to put government services online, he said.

The first class, E-Permits 101, ran from February through June 2000. Representatives from six state agencies collaborated in that class to develop an electronic permitting template and 10 applications. E-Forms 101, the class Wallace attended, started last July and ended in March.

Wallace came to the academy representing the business side of Employment Security. Several people from his agencys information technology department attended as well. Their classmates included representatives from about 20 state agencies and several municipal governments. The class met on Wednesdays at DIS headquarters in Olympia.

The first major task of the e-forms class was to procure the e-forms software package. Participants listed the features their own agencies needed in the software; the class then had to refine the lists into specifications that would make sense to potential vendors.

One challenge was to consolidate requirements that overlapped; another was "getting the requirements down to true business requirements, instead of programming requirements," Wallace said.

Hashing out the issues with 40 to 60 people in the room, the group came up with a good final document, he said. "Things were worded clearly enough in the end, after all the haggling, that I think even reading it cold, you could get a real good understanding of what was wanted."

The group released its request for proposals (RFP) in early September, and in December the state signed a contract with Shana Corp. The class then went to work using Shanas Informed package to develop e-forms applications.

Useful Results

One major product of an academy class is a template that agencies can use to develop their own applications. The template emerges from work the group does together to develop a single application. "We pick an academy project that has broad applicability to everyone else in class, so in building that one, everybody learns how to build their own," Kirk said.

At the same time, class members work on applications for their agencies. As they focus on their own projects, practical questions about how to achieve their goals rise to the surface, Kirk said. "The whole point of the academy is to unearth those hidden questions in a real, live environment and then deal with them."

UI FastTax became the class project in E-Forms 101. Classmates from other agencies referred to the work done by the group from Employment Security while working on their own projects. Students worked on applications in breakout groups during class time and also between sessions.

For one homework assignment, Wallace said, students created configuration diagrams, showing how data would move around their systems, what hardware would be involved and what security measures would be provided. In class, they presented their diagrams and their colleagues offered suggestions.

Students do a great deal of brainstorming during presentations. "Questions come up about particular ways of doing things, and ideas are brought forward -- other ideas people have used to do the same type of thing," Wallace said.

Along with learning from each other, academy students also tap the brains of industry experts from the public and private sector who visit the class. Expert presentation topics in the e-forms class included online security, digital signatures and the shared hosting services DIS offers, Wallace said.

In the E-Permits class, a visitor from Cybersource, a provider of e-commerce transaction services, explained how an application should handle the processing of credit card information, Kirk said.

Also in that class, a state auditor examined the application under development to make sure the electronic audit trail it created met the states requirements: "And it passed muster," said Paul Taylor, deputy director of DIS.

"Under other circumstances, it could have taken months" to learn if the e-permit conformed to regulations. "Or we wouldnt have known the answer prior to the launch of the application," he said.

Unlike traditional methods for dealing with technology and policy -- months of meetings to write a new standard or a lengthy memo exchange to get a question answered -- the academy pushes projects forward quickly, Taylor said. "It allows us to move at a speed approximating Internet time. And thats vital."

Merrill Douglas <mdouglas@stny.rr.com> is a freelance writer based in upstate New York. She specializes in applications of information technology.

For more information on the Digital Government Applications Academy, e-mail <disacademy@dis.wa.gov>.
Merrill Douglas Contributing Writer