A group of federal, state and local agencies is putting the finishing touches on what could become a blueprint for erasing jurisdictional lines that divide e-government services and information.
New Jersey, Virginia and a handful of counties joined forces last year under a project dubbed "Government Without Boundaries" to create a model for national information "channels" capable of linking citizens to government Web content and service applications anywhere in the nation. Participants view the first product of that collaboration - a prototype of a calendar of parks and recreation events for multiple jurisdictions - as a test-bed for developing the technology and management practices required for seamless electronic government.
"We see Government Without Boundaries as creating a means for citizens to do away with concerning themselves over where certain services or information are located," said Bette Dillehay, deputy secretary of technology for Virginia. "It creates a framework for moving into what is truly an e-government model that allows people to work without a silo effect."
Ultimately, experience gained from the project may lead to a series of government Web channels that offer one-stop access to national resources on topics such as starting and maintaining a business, finding employment and locating services for seniors or citizens with disabilities.
For now, however, the goals are more modest. Participants are cobbling together an online calendar of events for parks and recreation facilities operated by New Jersey; Monmouth County, N.J.; the commonwealth of Virginia; the Virginia counties of Fairfax and Virginia Beach; and the U.S. Department of the Interior.
The group focused on park information because it holds built-in motivation for intergovernmental cooperation, said John Clark, a program director for the Office of Intergovernmental Solutions within the U.S. General Services Administration. "There is a natural incentive to provide visibility to recreation areas because it brings in tourism and tourism brings in dollars to the local economy," said Clark, whose office coordinates the Government Without Boundaries project. "We're trying to use this channel as a guinea pig to come up with a framework that can be replicated in other channels."
Clark intended to show-off a prototype of the channel and recruit new participants for the project at the National Association of State Chief Information Officers meeting scheduled for September. However, that meeting was postponed following terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
The group is now assessing the best way to attract more state and local governments to the project, he said. "We would like to get other jurisdictions involved so we can say this is not just a mid-Atlantic state project. And the more involvement we have, the better we will be able to come up with core data elements that will be useful to everybody."
The project must clear a series of technical and management hurdles to expand beyond its current scope.
Clark and others see XML technology and various forms of metadata as key to feeding content from a jumble of incompatible databases throughout the country into a central repository. They're also beginning to confront the task of developing a method for organizing and indexing the data they will receive.
But the bigger job has little to do with technology, said Greg Lambard, special assistant to New Jersey CIO Wendy Rayner. "I don't think anyone believes that technology is the hard part," he said. "It is certainly the people issues - working with all of these different jurisdictions and trying to get them to come on board."
Flexibility will be key to that effort, said Lambard, whose state is hosting the parks and recreation prototype. He expects the next phase of the project to offer varying degrees of participation. Jurisdictions without an existing parks calendar could use the Government Without Boundaries system as their own. States and localities with existing calendar applications could maintain those systems and also submit information to the national calendar.
"What we're coming up with is we'll have to let individual jurisdictions decide how they want to play," Lambard said. "That's going to be a strength of this program. We're not going to tell them, we're going to ask them."
Eventually, applications like the calendar would be just one facet of a broad array of related information and services held together by a national parks and recreation channel. "If you had enough people in the channel and enough interest, you could have multiple applications being worked on simultaneously by different subsets of folks in that channel," said Lambard. "They would be different parts of the same puzzle, and the channel would be a central entryway into those applications."
Clark said funding presents the biggest challenge to building multi-jurisdictional applications to populate these channels. State, local and federal appropriations processes are designed to support specific programs or agencies, he said, complicating the development of shared systems.
"At a certain point when you talk about infrastructure to provide cross-agency and cross-governmental action, that requires co-mingling of funds," he said. "Until we have that type of legislative authority, that could be a barrier."
Clark said the Office of Intergovernmental Solutions intends to raise awareness of the issue among lawmakers at all levels of government in the hope of lessening the procedural obstacles. But existing appropriations challenges don't rule out development of shared applications, Clark added, noting that both the Internet and the Global Positioning System began as government-funded initiatives.
For now, Lambard said he's satisfied with gradually adding features to the calendar application and increasing the number of jurisdictions that are participating in the project.
"We're not sure how big this will grow," he said. "Our Division of Parks and Forestry is going to be using it, and we'll do our best to get every county involved. And I think we have a good commitment from the [U.S.] Interior Department."
In addition, he's working with Virginia officials to incorporate their state and county park information into the application.
Virginia's Dillehay expects momentum for the project to grow from the bottom up. "A state doesn't have to participate in order for a locality to participate," she said.
"By identifying a channel, you allow anyone to participate by linking services to that channel. It's creating a framework for people to work together to develop this repository."
Clark intends to facilitate that process by making the Government Without Boundaries Web site a storehouse for information on joining existing channels and creating new ones. He also expects the current parks and recreation project to plant the seeds for more complex undertakings in the future.
"Our goal is to set some guidelines or lessons learned on how to truly do intergovernmental projects," he said. "We want to come up with something that is repeatable and scalable to other areas that are going to be a lot more difficult."