November 19, 2007 By Frank Ruge
In 2004, the autonomous region of Catalonia, Spain, launched an ambitious project to transform how it delivered services to citizens. Services from all 16 government departments, scattered across a patchwork of 270 separate networks - often hard to locate - were to be grouped according to user needs.
Technologically the transformation called for upgrading the government's internal network to all-Internet protocol (IP) and widespread broadband deployment. By replacing numerous public networks with a shared services center, Catalonia gave its citizens access to all government departments through a common portal using a single telephone number or URL.
Today, Catalonia reports that citizen satisfaction with service speed doubled in six months. Project cost savings are $22 million over three years, and the government expects a 30 percent reduction in the time it takes constituents to find services.
Unlike Catalonia, most government agencies and bureaus still maintain their own individual processes, networks and information systems to accomplish local tasks. However, these governmental IT and communications "silos" have created several situations that warrant improvement:
Fortunately technology is coming together with government programs and policies to transform what were independent systems and processes into a more connected government. As governments realize the inefficiencies of a segmented and isolated organization, policymakers are enacting regulations that allow, and sometimes require, government agencies to share information and processes across boundaries.
Simultaneously, IP-based shared-services technologies have emerged that allow governments to pull together their processes and information resources in a collaborative way. These technologies, which are now embedded in the basic network infrastructure, are:
Virtualization/service-oriented architecture is at the heart of building shared services. Hardware virtualization links multiple computing systems and WANs into one large pool of resources that an entity can use. Virtualization also logically segments user groups across the data center, as well as LANs and WANs, so they operate securely across distributed entities and departments while maintaining privacy.
In addition to hardware virtualization, service virtualization -- also called a service-oriented architecture -- relies on standard software tools and design principles to turn individually hosted applications into networkwide services that operate independently of user-access devices, local computing hardware platforms and operating systems. This infrastructure fosters interactive, real-time collaboration within and among agencies.
Collaboration/unified communications. Unifying communications systems by linking applications to one another enables the transparent use of processes and resources across systems. It also accelerates communication among employees, between employees and citizens, and between agencies with public safety or intelligence information to share.
Unified communications systems include IP telephony infrastructure and related conferencing applications, integrated voice and data messaging systems, video-conferencing systems, and contact/call centers. They also comprise special IP equipment and applications enabling the interoperability of wireless radio systems that empower police officers, firefighters and other public safety personnel to communicate with one another.
Collaboration is a large focus area for government CIOs: In November 2006, Forrester Research surveyed 64 government technology decision-makers in North America to discover where they planned to invest their software budgets in 2007. The study found that upgrading e-mail, messaging and collaboration systems were the top priority for government CIOs.
Mobile and wireless. Mobility constitutes a significant portion of the collaborative, shared-services government environment, particularly from a public safety perspective. Mobility is delivered by mobile WANs (cellular networks), as well as wireless LAN technology used to build mesh networks that deliver high-speed mobility (at LAN speeds) throughout municipalities. These standards-based networks operate with corresponding wireless client devices, such as cell phones, tablets, two-way radios and laptops used by mobile personnel.
Typically, however, various public safety radio networks run on different frequencies and are not interoperable. So when an emergency requires collaboration among the local fire and police departments, and state police, to name a few, voice and other communications must take place with each entity individually.
Now intelligent IP systems can connect dissimilar radio systems at the push of a button. When safety agencies share video feeds, building blueprints and hazardous-materials databases across disparate radio systems and other public safety organizations, agencies can dispatch the appropriate personnel and arm them with relevant information about the environment they are entering.
IP-based radio intercommunications systems can also convert other communications systems - including computers, cell phones and public address systems - into ad hoc radios, so key people can be reached during an emergency no matter where they are, and connected to a central communications channel.
These networks support push-to-talk (walkie-talkie) and cellular voice capabilities for interactive and broadcast communications, and will soon gain data and video functions to further boost public safety efforts. For example, an officer with a wireless display could download local maps and other data that could be helpful in an emergency. A video camera mounted on a fire marshal's helmet could link to local surveillance cameras in a burning building so emergency personnel on the scene could see what's going on inside and avoid injury.
Mobile networks provide other gains to the public safety sector. Because emergency responders can file reports electronically, for example, they can remotely update public safety databases in real time and download information from the records-management system. This not only saves responders time by not having to drive to the station to retrieve reports and files, but also keeps the centralized information freshly updated for access by other personnel, who may be researching cases of their own.
Finally video surveillance can join the government's IP network. Tying the surveillance system into the network makes video content accessible from anywhere across the network, including mobile security personnel's PDAs and mobile phones. With viewing no longer restricted to banks of monitors housed in special rooms, security professionals can see what's happening in multiple places throughout an organization.
Secure Information Sharing. Common applications and cross-department computing systems must be wrapped in a strong layer of security that allows information to be shared among authorized government personnel while protecting sensitive data. Sharing information among organizations while consolidating government onto a shared infrastructure appears to pose contradictory objectives to the CIO. Fortunately industry partnerships and technology developments have come together to meet these seemingly opposing objectives.
To help foster a highly secure architecture at the computing, application, storage and network levels, Cisco, EMC, and Microsoft announced in July 2007 an alliance and related architecture for secure information sharing across government boundaries. It's called the Secure Information Sharing Architecture (SISA), and it blends secure-networking components, identity management and storage subsystem technology with other off-the-shelf secure components to achieve a shared service infrastructure while maintaining policy-based security centered on communities of trust.
SISA's goal is to break down the barriers at the traditional organizational and jurisdictional IT infrastructure boundaries, while applying policies that achieve information security and privacy so sensitive information is better protected and can be shared among authorized communities more effectively.
Drive Toward Unification
When various arms of a given government interconnect their resources, they can gain interoperability among applications, and synchronize their databases and backup storage resources. Cross-boundary personnel can then access consistent data, see the larger picture and collaborate effectively with their counterparts in other organizations to improve service levels.
A market research firm, Kearney, which recently conducted a survey of C-level executives about shared services, estimates that organizations save 20 percent to 50 percent in operations costs with shared services. The survey also found that shared services improve productivity by 10 percent.
Hard cost savings are only one benefit of shared services. It also enables entirely new capabilities that empower government leaders, emergency responders and constituents. For example, a single repository of constituent information accessible by authorized personnel allows citizens to update their information just once, instead of having to contact the property tax collector, department of motor vehicles, voter registration department, library and so forth. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, forbid a government organization to request information from a citizen if that person has already provided it to another agency.
Similarly, public safety officials who access consistent, updated, real-time information from a single source can take appropriate action in emergency situations faster. Eventually shared services could allow public health officials to monitor confidential data - on pandemics, say - found in different government agencies and private-sector databases. They could then use the shared-services infrastructure to coordinate response efforts with both government agencies and critical private-sector partners.
Like the private sector, governments are investing in the unification of their technology infrastructures both to save substantial amounts of money, and improve citizen experiences and interactions.
Unifying IT and networking infrastructures, and instituting cross-agency collaborative applications in a shared-services environment, require a re-engineering of governmental back offices into a citizen-centric entity that acts as a single enterprise rather than disconnected agencies and bureaus.
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