Trial by Prototype

'By working closely with my local counterparts, I quickly learned the unintended consequences that can occur when designing a system that affects others.'

by / November 3, 2004
The town of Colonie, N.Y., has lots of dogs, and therefore, issues lots of dog licenses -- almost 6,000 to be specific. In addition to new licenses for canines, the town churns out renewals, transfers licenses for dogs who move in and out of the upstate town, and reports the information to the Department of Agriculture & Markets -- the state agency that tracks New York's dog population.

Deputy Town Clerk Diane Conroy LaCivita knows intimately the amount of paperwork a typical transaction generates for her staff, as well as their counterparts in the hundreds of other towns and cities throughout the Empire State. "We spend a lot of time looking for information, tracking down correct responses and filing checks every month," she said.

LaCivita would love to have an online system to streamline the licensing workflow between her office, the state and other towns. She wouldn't mind if that system also handled other transactions and data transfers that constantly occur between state and local government. Instead, she and other local officials are saddled with a large and growing number of individual systems for government-to-government (G2G) business that impede workflow and strain financial resources.

In fact, the typical local government in New York has as many as five information systems connecting them to the state, each with its own sign-in and password system. Local workers log on an average of four times daily, with some workers entering and exiting the different systems 15 times per day.

These numbers led the Center for Technology in Government (CTG), a research organization based in Albany, N.Y., to launch a study on how to best integrate state and local government. "So much of what has been done in digital government is government-to-citizen, but not enough has been done for government-to-government," said CTG Director Sharon Dawes, as she explained the purpose of the project. The reasons for lack of government interest in this field are twofold, according to Dawes. "First, it's extremely hard to connect two complex organizations. Second, there isn't much cachet in building back-office systems for governments who want to showcase how they use IT."

CTG stepped into the void and spent 21 months and nearly $1 million building the State-Local Internet Gateway Prototype. The goal was to identify, demonstrate and evaluate all factors associated with designing and deploying a secure, single sign-on G2G system that runs several applications and is accessible over the Internet.

"Integration is the holy grail of IT in government," said Dawes, "so we designed this prototype to access applications across several [state] agencies." As a result, New York is the first state in the country to build such a gateway linking numerous state and local government operations.

Testing the Prototype
The gateway GTG constructed is a prototype for testing purposes, not a fully functional portal. But CTG invested enormous resources to analyze its capabilities. Nearly 80 state and local participants (including LaCivita) contributed to the project, which was run by CTG Program Manager Meghan Cook. In addition, four corporate sponsors -- AT&T, CGI Information Systems and Management Consultants, Keane Inc., and Microsoft -- contributed expertise, money and software to the prototype project

The prototype tested three applications common to government, representing varying degrees of complexity. Project participants chose dog licensing because it represented a typical high-volume, G2G transaction process. The second application was a contact repository, which involved a shared database. Third was a rule-based reporting system for checking parcel transfers.

Testing showed the gateway could deliver huge benefits to all levels of government, such as time and money savings through better workflow and use of existing systems, improved coordination between state and local government by sharing processes, and better access to quality data. But potential barriers to success are just as formidable. They include the cost of building and maintaining such a gateway, the many conflicting rules and practices that make building state and local systems so complex in the first place, and the difficulty finding political support for such a project given governments' many priorities.

Beyond the benefits and barriers, the project uncovered many other vital findings that could affect future G2G gateways. For example, project participants rated relationships as key to getting good results. Ingredients for collaboration included having long-term, peer-to-peer business relations, plenty of local representation, a rational and coordinated role for vendors, and strong coordination among state agencies.

Bruce Sauter, CIO for the New York State Office of Real Property Services, was quick to focus on the value of relationship building. "The project was very important in helping us understand our customer chain [at the local level]," he said. "By working closely with my local counterparts, I quickly learned the unintended consequences that can occur when designing a system that affects others."

Another finding was the concept of an enterprise gateway. Five years ago, high-speed Internet access was out of reach for most small jurisdictions. Today, the infrastructure is just about everywhere for secure, G2G information sharing and transactions. That's significant, according to CTG, because it means all local governments, large and small, can use such a gateway.

Identity management has also hampered the growth of enterprise gateway systems. As CTG found, town officials repeatedly use numerous sign-on and password systems in their work. By designing their gateway with only one sign-on, CTG gave participants a simple way to access several applications. The current problem is producing a decentralized identity management system. Even with just 50 or so participants signing on during the test, CTG found the centralized system used was cumbersome and complicated to manage.

The enterprise approach also led project participants to view data in new ways concerning standards, quality, integration and ownership. LaCivita said she was concerned about ownership issues when sharing data through a gateway. She pointed out that one dog licensing system feature made ownership of data a bit murkier than it is today. CTG's Cook agreed that the debate is continuing over centralized versus decentralized data. "You can't have one standard for all data. It varies depending on sensitivity and privacy concerns," she said. The project also examined issues concerning usability and information policies that can affect how a G2G gateway is built.

Finding Strategic Answers
Designing and running a state-local gateway on an enterprise scale raises numerous challenges, according to CTG. The answer is finding the right strategy for the right situation. For example, state-local governance of an enterprise gateway must address the needs of state, county and municipal government. According to CTG, the key to success is acknowledging that all participants are peers. Sauter noted the governance issue was a real eye-opener for him. "You realize decision-making isn't self-contained. There are lots of other stakeholders involved," he said.

Communications is another problem area that can be addressed in different ways. CTG points out that several well defined techniques can be used to establish and maintain communications, with some working better than others depending on the situation or audience. Business process analysis, field work, prototypes, project management, training and cost structures are other strategies that can positively impact the outcome of a state-local gateway.

Right now, the biggest unanswered question is what happens next.

Ed Hemminger, CIO for Ontario County, N.Y., noted that much IT funding is still tied to federal dollars, which continue to pay for stovepiped systems. "Our problem at the local level is that we rarely have any impact on the development of the new systems," he said. New York state CIO Jim Dillon, however, has been working to rectify part of that problem by putting more local representation on the state's CIO Council, Hemminger added. While that doesn't directly address the federal funding issue, it does build better relations among state and local CIOs. That could prove helpful when it's time to turn the prototype gateway into a working system.

One way to make the gateway operational would be to give it a modular design and execute the system in an incremental fashion, an approach Hemminger wholeheartedly recommends with careful attention to how it's done. "You're going to need some quick wins, so the choice of applications is critical," he said.

Dawes also mentioned Dillon as the person who may be involved with the next stage of the state-local gateway, but at this point, the discussion about the next step is too preliminary. Meanwhile, other groups from around the country are looking closely at the results. CTG has already published their research results in Bridging the Enterprise, which recommends identifying and providing access to relevant resources on the Web, along with other suggestions that will foster intergovernmental access in a realistic way. "The next logical extension of this idea is not to try to develop a G2G gateway that encompasses every possible function, but to begin by colocating access to programmatically related functions through a single Web interface."

Dawes mentioned that the gateway project is perhaps the biggest and possibly most significant piece of research CTG has done so far. "The intergovernmental aspects of government and e-government are so important and yet poorly understood," she said. "This research project has been an opportunity to open the door to intergovernmental systems of the future."

Tod Newcombe is editor of Public CIO, and this story is reprinted with permission from the August issue of Public CIO