Tying the Knot: Intergovernmental IT Projects Unfold

Federal, state and local governments are working together as never before to develop new ways to use technology on an intergovernmental basis. But will these efforts be enough to overcome an ingrained culture of separatism?

by / April 30, 1996
Oregon Pathways, the name of Clackamas County's integrated information, referral and eligibility screening service for welfare clients, is everything an intergovernmental project should be. It has support from state and county executives, involves federal, state and local agencies, and has a simple, but elegant approach to delivering services.

Rather than have clients go to one agency to determine their eligibility for a range of benefits, they will walk into one of several state or local agencies and receive the same kind of referral service and eligibility screening. Not only will Pathways simplify the welfare process, it will also reduce data redundancy -- and program costs -- benefiting taxpayers who have grown weary of footing the bills. But like so many other projects of its kind, Oregon Pathways is just getting under way. While many of the pieces are in place, the system is far from complete.

Intergovernmental projects that foster the use of technology to deliver services are moving forward on several fronts. At the federal level, organizations such as the National Performance Review (NPR) and its stepchild, the Government Information Technology Services (GITS) working group, are championing more than a dozen interagency and intergovernmental initiatives, including electronic benefits transfer and a national law enforcement/public safety network.

At the state and local level, the Intergovernmental Enterprise Panel (IEP) is highlighting efforts, such as Oregon Pathways and 14 other projects, that cross federal, state and local government boundaries to deliver services. Efforts are also under way to engage private-sector partners where their cooperation is most feasible.

Intergovernmental projects have the potential to slash the cost of service delivery while merging once separate programs into "virtual" services that do a much better job of helping citizens. In fact, the projects could realign government by showing that the checks and balances of bureaucracy are no longer needed in the Information Age. Computers, not cadres of civil servants working in stovepiped programs, will ensure that taxpayer dollars are wisely spent.

Much of intergovernmental work is still in the formative stages, however. Electronic benefits transfer, considered to be one of the more advanced projects, is still years away from becoming a reality on a national scale. Many of the projects chosen by the IEP are only in prototype or pilot stages. Intergovernmental cooperation also faces a number of cultural, security and policy hurdles that have yet to be ironed out, while resources, such as funding, remain limited. And while the federal sector has been centrally organized and directed by mandates from the vice president, state and local cooperation is less cohesive, though determination remains high.

Of even greater concern is whether government agencies will actually consolidate programs and take on a broader, more challenging mandate than they have been willing to do in the past. "Narrow mandates make it easier for government agencies to control their functions and, by the same token, avoid fulfilling too many obligations," said Jerry Mechling, director of the Program on Strategic Computing and Telecommunications in the Public Sector at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. "What we need today is a broader consolidation of functions for greater efficiency." Just how far governments are willing to go with their cooperative IT projects is still anyone's guess.

When Vice President Al Gore's NPR panel examined how the federal government uses information technology, it discovered a total lack of coordination among agencies. In 1994, the vice president established GITS to lead the charge toward integrating information technology into the government's business processes and coordinating the results across agency lines. To ensure success, GITS steered clear of short-term political appointees.

"GITS consists of career government IT executives," said James J. Flyzik, the chairman of GITS and director of the Office of Telecommunications Management for the Department of Treasury, describing the working group's main strength and authority as champion of cooperative information and technology sharing. "We look at what's the big project or initiative and find the key government executive who could lead the project on a governmentwide basis. It's a very dynamic kind of thing."

Membership in GITS includes computer and telecommunications executives from 16 federal agencies and related organizations, including the Departments of Defense, Treasury, Commerce, Veteran Affairs, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Justice. Funding for GITS comes from the various federal agencies that are members of the working group.

GITS has a baker's dozen projects it's attempting to integrate and implement both nationally and in the federal sector. Plans for a nationwide, integrated electronic benefits transfer system are being directed from the Office of Management and Budget under the direction of Jack Radzikowski. Other projects include:

Integrated electronic access to government information and services.
National law enforcement/public safety network.
Intergovernmental tax filing, reporting and payments processing system.
International trade data system.
National environmental data index.
Other projects involve developing, providing and strengthening a host of federal-related needs, such as training, security and procurement. In the two years that GITS has been in existence, its scorecard shows mixed results. EBT is moving forward and use of the World Wide Web to disseminate information has exploded. "But other projects that involve a lot more planning and funding issues, as well as approval from Congress, have been slow at getting started," explained Flyzik.

Hardly discouraged, Flyzik believes that momentum is on the side of interagency and intergovernmental cooperation. "I think that the environment we're in, with shrinking budgets, has added momentum to doing things on a collaborative basis. MIS managers in the federal government face the realization that they won't get all the funds they need to do things on their own. They must use new strategies to partner with other agencies to leverage what they are doing."

Halfway down the GITS mission statement is a clause calling for the group to foster "work with state and local governments and industry to promote cooperation and information sharing."

Flyzik explained the need for intergovernmental cooperation in more detailed and practical terms. "Individual citizens don't really care about who in government is responsible for delivering services," he said. "They don't see federal, state, local or tribal. They just see government. So to be effective, we really have to coordinate everything at all levels of government."

As a result, Flyzik chartered the formation of the IEP in early 1995 to bring together a similar group of technology visionaries who could help chart ways for greater intergovernmental cooperation involving technology and to champion projects as models of cooperation and coordination. Organized with three co-chairs from each sector of government, IEP's original members include Sam Ewell from the Department of Treasury, Phil Smith, director of federal/state relations for Iowa and Costis Toregas, president of Public Technology Inc., a nonprofit association of local governments. Ewell, who had to step down because of health reasons, has been replaced by Nada D. Harris, deputy assistant secretary for Information Resources Management at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

With little in the way of resources, IEP is presently a group of federal, state and local government volunteers. "We're not formal in any way and don't have any delivery mechanism," said Toregas. "IEP is really a virtual organization pushing intergovernmental desires."

Phil Smith concurred. "The IEP is not in the position of making policy, it's a cooperative process and all we're really trying to do here is promote a common agenda." The most important part of that agenda so far has been the identification of 15 state and local IT projects that can serve as models of how to either deliver services or transfer information across agency and government boundaries. They range from multi-million dollar projects, such as statewide information networks for Iowa (ICN) and Massachusetts (MAGNet), to low-cost training programs to help local jurisdictions develop home pages on the World Wide Web or a technology transfer project that will convert U.S. Army battlefield simulations into a training system for emergency management officials.

Typical of the kind of projects that the leaders of IEP and GITS would like to see duplicated is Oregon Pathways. The project was first conceived in 1991, when then-Gov. Barbara Roberts provided some seed money to sponsor innovative ideas on ways to integrate government services. Pathways moved closer to reality in 1994 when the county's Director of Human Resources, John Hildner, asked various department heads to become involved in a project to simplify eligibility for and access to human service programs. With all agreeing to participate, Hildner went to the next level, bringing in representatives from the Oregon Department of Human Resources, the Department of Employment, the North Clackamas County School District and the local branch of Social Security Administration to help reengineer how clients access information, receive referrals and are screened for eligibility.

What they came up with, according to Debbie Helgerson, Pathways' project coordinator, was a radical step from the past. "Rather than trying to agree on one form or one place for service delivery, they said let the person come to any one of us to get all the information and assistance they need."

To support this "any-stop" approach to service delivery, the county is connecting all of its agencies to a network backbone that also links up with state agencies as well as county schools. The backbone is part of a county telecommunications infrastructure project that will cost $850,000. Sites that are off the backbone will be able to dial-in via modem. With all participating agencies agreeing to share data, a client will be able to walk into a wide range of government offices and request a report on what benefits and services they are eligible for. The same will be possible for referrals and eligibility screening.

"This approach makes tremendous sense," said Helgerson, "especially in rural areas where people might drive for two hours to reach the one social service agency only to find out they aren't eligible." But with Pathways, a city or town government can provide that same information just a few minutes away from home. "Pathways brings services to the public where and when they need it," she added.

Building a fully operational Pathways will not be easy, admitted Helgerson. "This project requires a tremendous amount of coordination and cooperation from all the agencies," she said. It also calls for linking and bridging together different databases as seamlessly as possible. "Every agency has its own databases," added Helgerson, "each with its own data definitions, dictionaries and coding structures. In addition, we're all using a variety of hardware and software."

So far, the county has spent $500,000 building a prototype for an information and referral module that will be pilot tested this summer. The next step will be the construction of an eligibility screening module, which should be tested by the county sometime in 1997.

If Pathways succeeds in reaching all of its goals, it will have overcome what many believe to be the major stumbling blocks to intergovernmental projects. Some of them include privacy and security issues when different agencies start sharing data on the same individual. Flyzik cautioned agencies to articulate their intentions every step along the way in terms of what they are doing and how they are accomplishing it. Another hurdle is resources. Some intergovernmental projects clearly demonstrate a good return on taxpayer dollars, such as EBT and coordinated wireless communications among public safety agencies. Other projects may have a harder time showing a savings. And as Mechling pointed out, the first thing that gets axed when budgets shrink is the cooperative project.

But the biggest hurdle for intergovernmental cooperation is culture. Federal, state and local governments are ingrained with a culture that runs separate programs under separate bureaucracies and funded by separate budgets. "Technology looks easy compared to the complexity of getting the relevant government entities to work together," commented Flyzik. Mechling believes the government pendulum is swinging toward broader mandates that will encourage greater attempts at cooperation. But he warns that it's going to take more than a registry of home pages on the Web and some working groups trying to champion cooperation.

"The Internet and intergovernmental committees are several steps removed from actual coordination and consolidation of programs across agency and government lines. When push comes to shove we will need authority to establish budgets and hire personnel on the basis of consolidated objectives, not just the narrow objectives of present agencies. Can we legitimately assign significant workforce effort to the standardization and cooperation on activities required for cross-agency integration? It remains unclear that government agencies are actually moving in that direction," he said.

Toregas, who has spent the last two decades persuading local governments to reengineer their stovepiped programs along service delivery lines using technology, said that developing a political model for intergovernmental cooperation and coordination is the most challenging job that the IEP will undertake. "That needs the most preparation," he said. "You just don't say to the political leader 'this is the right way to do it.' You have to prepare them by providing the vision as well as the political infrastructure for intergovernmental success."


Oregon Pathways
Eligibility screening information system. Contact: Debbie Helgerson, 503/650-3567.
Merced Automated Global Information Control System (MAGIC)
Integrated human services information system. Contact: Van Vanderzyde, 209/385-3000 x 5400.
Re-engineering Survey Data Collection at Bureau of Labor Statistics
Survey data collection system. Contact: Richard Clayton, 202/606-6520.
Massachusetts Access to Government Network (MAGNet)
Statewide, high-speed communications infrastructure. Contact: Patricia Fennessey, 617/973-0815.
Iowa Communications Network (ICN)
State-owned fiber-optic network. Contact: Tami Fujinaka, 515/323-4658.
"For You Chicago" Kiosk Pilot Program
Multilingual city information system. Contact: .
Georgia Common Access (GCA)
Multiprogram social services assistance program. Contact: Wayne Harmon, 404/331-2271.
Smart State Alabama
Internet Web site for government information highway programs. Contact: Richard Taylor, 205/870-2694.
Maryland Electronic Capital
Multigovernmental information services forum. Contact: Nanette Butterworth, 410/974-3162 or .
Association of Bay Area Governments (ABAG)
Training and support for government Internet sites. Contact: Terry Bursztynsky, 510/464-7951.
CIESIN: Consortium for International Earth Science Information System
Public access to information relevant to the Great Lakes Region. Contact: Michael Thomas, 517/797-2644.
Native American Public Telecommunications
Electronic link for 500 Native American tribes. Contact: Frank Blythe, 402/472-3522.
Smart Valley Inc.
Regional information infrastructure. Contact: John Young or Kathie Blakenship, 408/562-7707.
Electronic simulation training for emergency management. Contact: Jean Burmester, 407/381-8801.
World Wide Web site for the GITS working group:

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