Leap of Faith: The Story of Trust, Technology and the Intergovernmental Way

Intergovernmental applications ought to be the next incarnation of electronic government, but is everybody really ready to put aside their own self-interest?

by / August 1, 2003
"You've got to be able to show why the whole is greater than the sum of the parts -- you know, 'What's in it for me?' 'What we will be able to do more efficiently, more effectively, at similar or less cost?'" said Bob Wessels, court manager of the County Courts of Law in Harris County, Texas, as he talked about reasons intergovernmental projects sometimes fail.

Wessels would know. For almost 30 years, he's had a hand in developing a significant intergovernmental project in arguably the most difficult area to get such a project airborne: criminal justice.

The Harris County Justice Information Management System (JIMS) went live in 1977, Wessels said. It's the largest fully integrated, automated county-level justice system in the country. JIMS data is accessible by 15,400 users in 144 county agencies, 111 noncounty agencies (including municipalities and school districts), 11 state agencies and 15 federal agencies.

Part of solving the "What's in it for me?" challenge is finding the rewards to motivate disinterested agencies to talk about intergovernmental projects. Another part is infusing agencies with a new mindset.

"Of the integration projects I'm aware of, [when] you talk to people doing the implementation -- or trying to -- sooner or later what makes or breaks it is people being able to accept that they're going to have to change something they're doing," Wessels said. "They're going to have to share responsibility and share control."

Flash Point
During the last few years, the push for an intergovernmental approach to electronic government services has gained momentum. The federal government is reaching out to state and local governments; state government is reaching out to other states and to local governments; and local governments are reaching out to each other and to their respective state governments. But like any governmental transformation, reality doesn't necessarily translate into speed. Observers say perhaps the heaviest drag on intergovernmental projects is the breadth and depth of these applications.

"It's both horizontal and vertical," said Frank McDonough, former deputy associate administrator for the Office of Intergovernmental Solutions at the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA). "It's horizontal -- it's integrated systems across an agency, across a department, across a government and between national governments.

"It's also vertical. It's between the national government and its states, and county, city, regional and tribal governments. Most of the federal services in this country are delivered by local government, so there's a natural relationship there that hasn't really been used in a collegial way, in a collaborative way, by the federal government."

McDonough said he has been beating the intergovernmental drum for most of his federal-level career, noting that the GSA's Office of Intergovernmental Solutions officially opened shop seven years ago and not exactly with a lot of fanfare.

"At the time, only a few people had any understanding. We would talk about intergovernmental management, and eyes would glaze over everywhere," he said. "For a long time, my staff and I said, 'We need to come up with a different word. This is causing problems every time we mention it.' But suddenly, the idea started to catch on."

To some observers, September 2000 was the flash point for the intergovernmental movement. That month, the National Association of State Chief Information Officers (NASCIO) met in Baltimore for its Annual Conference. At the tail end of the gathering, a small group of NASCIO members met and discussed pilot projects to test intergovernmental applications that would involve county, state and federal government.

"I presented that year at a panel, and one of the things I talked about was the need to extend our e-government program across levels of government. That was the next divide to conquer," said David Molchany, CIO of Fairfax County, Va. "Other people talked about the same thing. It was a theme building that year at the conference. It's the next evolution, and it was the right time. Every presentation, everything that happened that year, revolved around this 'cooperative levels of government' theme. That whole conference gave me the incentive to join NASCIO because I saw it suddenly as a way to join up with other levels of government."

Government Without Boundaries
At the close of the NASCIO conference, the GSA's Intergovernmental Advisory Board (IAB) held a conference call with several NASCIO members to discuss viable intergovernmental pilots, Molchany said. From those discussions came Government Without Boundaries (GWoB) -- A Management Approach to Intergovernmental Programs.

Molchany, former New Jersey CIO Wendy Rayner, former Virginia Deputy Secretary of Technology Bette Dillehay and GSA's McDonough were the initial members of GWoB. Their mission was to articulate a management blueprint for intergovernmental projects and test it by implementing an intergovernmental pilot project.

GWoB settled on a pilot to devise an intergovernmental reservation service for parks and recreation areas owned and managed by the federal government, the commonwealth of Virginia and Fairfax County, Va. Citizen surveys showed a high degree of interest in using a service that allowed making such reservations at a variety of places.

"This was our pilot project to see if that type of cooperative project, using XML and other new technologies, would work as a framework for other projects," Molchany explained. "People were excited because this was a real project. The CIO roundtable at the end of the NASCIO conference was talking about a real project to show that levels of government could cooperate. When the IAB held its conference call with the CIO roundtable, we literally latched onto that and said, 'Why do a white paper or report? Why don't we do a real project?' People on the conference call were very interested in going ahead on this project."

From 2000 to 2002, GWoB refined the management blueprint, the necessary application schemas (XML definitions of the minimum data elements required to support participation in a shared application), and the taxonomy (to define data entities and related attributes) to create an application that would allow a central Web site to collect a wide range of information from diverse parks and recreation facilities.

GWoB's pilot was eventually incorporated into President Bush's management agenda for e-government. One aspect of that agenda was to create a one-stop project to give citizens a single-point of access to information about government recreational sites in a user-friendly format. In May 2002, the first county/state data was added to Recreation.gov, which became that "single point of access."

The State of Intergovernmental
The increased relevance of e-services and e-strategies to how government operates is one critical driver of intergovernmental projects, said David McClure, vice president for e-government of the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington, D.C.

"It's made some of the interconnectivity between government a little more real than before," McClure said. "The second issue pushing intergovernmental, in a different way than before, is the fiscal crisis of the states. They are certainly hurting in terms of budget deficits and resources, and I believe that's a driving force between the state, local and federal governments trying to find ways to partner on things, to be more cost effective, more efficient, and also provide services without cutting services in ways that hurt citizens." Recent figures released by the National Conference of State Legislatures show states are entering their third straight year of budget shortfalls and face a cumulative $200 billion budget gap.

Despite this heightened awareness brought on by the fiscal crisis, intergovernmental projects amount to little more than Web sites and portals that present more common faces to citizens -- a useful thing for finding information, but not so much for conducting actual transactions, according to McClure.

"If you peel back and look at the actual level of intergovernmental service delivery and consolidation, it's just beginning," he said, ranking the progress of intergovernmental service delivery a three on a scale of one to 10. "There's a lot of activity going on, and there are positive things you can point to. There are a lot of real, tangible projects that have been engaged across levels of government. It's uneven, but it's there."

Molchany said government has worked at developing intergovernmental projects for some time, citing health and welfare and human services programs as the historical drivers behind those early efforts.

"One thing that was always difficult was how do we interface at the local level to systems of record at the state level to satisfy the federal government and their program requirements?" Molchany said. "People have been working on that for a long time. There were projects in Virginia called 'single pipelines' to get one way to interface to the state systems for all local governments. I think that was a theme in many states in the United States, especially for programs that were cross-cutting programs.

"The difference was when the IAB got involved [in 2000], suddenly new technologies, such as XML, and also a new emphasis on architecture, especially data architecture, really did start to come to the fore at that time," he said. "It wasn't that people didn't care about intergovernmental before, it was that there were less efficient ways to do it. Finally there was something new to test out, and that's what got the IAB excited."

Top Down
The federal government has been doing its part to let state and local governments know Uncle Sam is interested in intergovernmental projects. The appointment of Mark Forman in 2001 as associate director of information technology and e-government in the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was a strong indicator of the Bush administration's willingness to act on government reform and re-engineering.

Forman's position should build on the groundwork established during the Clinton administration, when John Koskinen was named chairman of President's Council on the Year 2000 Conversion. Y2K and Koskinen got state and local governments used to the idea of working with the federal government through a single position. Now that the federal government again set up a single contact point for state and local governments, at least the barrier of not knowing who to talk to about developing an intergovernmental application is removed.

Forman's position, along with e-government being one of the five key elements in President Bush's management agenda, lends an increased emphasis to intergovernmental projects -- an emphasis that may have been lacking in the Clinton administration's National Partnership on Reinventing Government (NPR). To McClure, what's happening now in the area of intergovernmental projects is a direct extension of the NPR, not necessarily something new and different.

"The NPR was really focused on this very issue of streamlining government, making government more efficient and more effective," McClure said. "The Bush administration accelerated it by focusing on funding and results. Budgets are being tied to it. Budget analysis is being tied to it. Results and performance are being examined with a little more precision and focus than what we saw in the prior administration.

"You do see a slightly different shift, in that the Clinton/Gore administration was trying to provide incentives and recognition for it," he continued. "This administration is continuing to do that too, but it's also making sure if you don't want to play, funding levels will be tied to your commitment and results in this area. That's much more directed than what you saw previously. There's clearly a strategy that funding and results are very important to this administration in moving this agenda forward in an accelerated fashion."

Reaching Out
Building on the success of Recreation.gov is FirstGov.gov, which announced in late April a pilot to add local governments to the FirstGov portal. Approximately 50 local governments volunteered to participate, said M.J. Jameson, associate administrator of theCitizen Services and Communications Office, the GSA agency running the pilot.

"The pilot will run from June to August," Jameson said, adding that her office sent a letter to approximately 7,500 local governments detailing the pilot and asking for volunteers. "We needed to start with 50 cities because we had to be strategic about which 50 we selected, so it was a cross-section and accurately reflected the complexion of America."

More and more local governments will be phased in -- 500 at a time by state, over the course of the next year or so -- with the ultimate goal of giving citizens across the country one place to get information about federal, state and local government, she said. Though the focus is on information delivery rather than transactions with the three levels of government, inclusion of local governments in Uncle Sam's portal is clearly the right place to start.

The pilot's first phase will concentrate on getting the data from local government Web sites stored on FirstGov, and the second phase will develop the navigation scheme to access the information. Essentially all information below a local government's domain name will be stored in FirstGov's search servers.

Behind all this is the will to effect change, and that willingness is coming from all directions, according to Jameson.

"I get just as much push from below as I give, and that's good," she said. "You don't get it done in government if you don't have that. Approaching government as business is coming from the Bush administration. It's the president's management agenda. It's coming from there, and that's a good place to start. That's how you make it systematic. That's how you make it happen all across government. The genie is out of the bottle. Who's going to turn this off? Nobody in their right mind."

Comfort Zones
One area that already boasts viable and productive intergovernmental projects is homeland security, said Steven Cooper, CIO of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

Cooper definitely has his work cut out for him -- he's the first CIO of a new agency that consolidates 22 previously existing federal agencies and houses approximately 190,000 employees, and he's taking to the road with the OMB's Forman to speak with state and local governments about the importance of intergovernmental projects, and the federal government's desire to create new partnerships.

Cooper draws a parallel between consolidating the various functions of previously stand-alone agencies into the new DHS, and advocating intergovernmental applications involving the federal, state and local governments. In both areas, people involved face some growing pains as they acclimate to and accept the change.

"From a management perspective, we have to demonstrate to people that whatever you left behind will, in fact, be made better by where we're headed," Cooper said. "That's a leap of faith, and that leap of faith is dependent upon some belief that where we end up is going to be better than where I am now, and will benefit me, personally. 'What's in it for me?' is a very valid question. There's nothing negative in all that -- each of us is unique -- but we have to convey in a meaningful way to each of those individuals that where we end up in this journey is going to benefit each one of them."

Cooper said he's running initiatives that not only cross the federal environment, but also link to state and local governments, and he's working to create partnerships with the private sector. Though he acknowledged it might be too soon to determine if these efforts are sustainable, there's progress in many different arenas. Cooper believes the federal government is slowly overhauling its image with other levels of government.

"I feel very confident that if you talk to state CIOs, they would tell you Mark and I have established a level of trust that, I think, is a pretty good working basis for where we need to go," he said. "I think if you talk to many of the governors' offices, you'd find a pretty good basis. If you talk with the state homeland security coordinators, I think they'll tell you they have a very good working relationship, and there's trust established with the department."

That changes, he acknowledged, as one begins to move hierarchically down into county and local governments, where skepticism remains. Part of the problem is the sheer scale. It's far simpler to work on trust when dealing with representatives from a manageable number of governments than when dealing with more than 30,000 counties and 80,000 municipalities.

"The challenge becomes how you get a representative balance," he said. "How do you do enough in the communities of interest where they trust one another and you establish trust with some, so that the others will at least ride with you? That's what we're doing. When I got out and talked to state and local folks, or private sector or whomever, I've heard two major things. The first is, 'This is the first time somebody from the federal environment has come to talk to us,' and 'us' usually means smaller communities or states that aren't immediately within an hour's drive from Washington, D.C. The second is, 'We're listening.'"

Cooper also said it's not just he and Forman who are racking up the frequent flier miles. Many people from the federal government are now getting out of their offices and reaching out to state and local governments.

Now that the biggest U.S. government bureaucracy is starting to act like an enterprise, intergovernmental projects suddenly take on new meaning. Cooperation from on high adds a deeper level to the possibilities of intergovernmental projects, but it's clear that much work remains. Perhaps the trickiest bit of work facing Cooper and his counterparts in the federal government is getting people out of their comfort zones. It's no secret governments resist encroachment on their turf as fiercely as any gang.

"People are just beginning to understand what it means to step out of their comfort zones," Cooper said. "I think we're at the very beginning here -- again, not a negative message. They've nudged a bit. They've sized things up, and they've said, 'Hmm, I can do this, and you know, I don't have to stretch too much, and I can stay pretty much with what I'm used to.' In some cases, I don't think we've bumped people far enough out of their comfort zones."

He cautioned that over the next 18 months, some people will get a rude awakening about what it really means to step out of their comfort zone and think about aligning what they're doing in their particular realm of government with the larger efforts going on at higher levels of government. Law enforcement must start working more actively with its counterparts in the fire community and the public safety community, he said, and public health and medical doctors must start working with their counterparts -- who might not necessarily be physicians -- in rural America.

"If I'm fat, dumb and happy and I'm doing pretty well and life is good, I don't want somebody coming along and taking a sharp stick and poking me in the eye -- it doesn't feel good," he said. "Well, the reality is that I am coming along, and others."
Shane Peterson Associate Editor