Solving the Integration Puzzle

CIOs play a key role in creating the right kind of environment for information integration to succeed in government

by / May 5, 2005
This article is reprinted with permission from the May issue of Public CIO

Effective information sharing is key to government's ability to work effectively across organizational boundaries, but achieving that level of effectiveness isn't easy. Agency heads and programs managers are finding that information needed to plan, make decisions and act is often held outside their own organizations, maintained in disparate formats and used for widely different purposes.

Changing the current situation is crucial for the long-term success of digital government, according to Sharon Dawes, director of the Center for Technology in Government. "Think about all the things we want to achieve with e-government: for citizens, high-quality services that are customer-centric, flexible and convenient; for our society, a government that works intelligently and efficiently in all its functions -- from environmental protection, to social welfare to homeland security," she said. "Success in all of these depends on our ability to share information and processes across boundaries."

The CIO, above all others, can help government achieve success in this area, Dawes added. "Government CIOs play a critical role in helping government program managers and policy-makers understand the conditions necessary for success."

The Key Is Interoperability
Technological advances made data integration possible, but research and practical experience tell us that technology alone cannot solve information integration problems. The solution also requires management and policy interoperability. Creating processes that span organizations -- in a sense, achieving management interoperability -- requires a wide range of skills and a lot of tenacity.

Paul Hutcheon, health director for the Central Connecticut Health District, drew on these skills in his efforts to develop a health district among several towns in central Connecticut. Health districts in Connecticut are designed to maximize public health services by integrating scarce public health resources and attracting additional state funding. They provide an organizing framework, and in some cases, are precursors to full health information integration. Hutcheon faced significant resistance in trying to get local legislative leaders on board. "Each town council member was concerned about losing local control. It's always the biggest initial issue, but it never turns out to be a real issue," he said. "It's really a fear of the unknown."

Making the argument about the return on investment for resource integration within one agency is difficult enough, but making it across many localities is daunting. Local officials had to decide whether to spend money on local efforts versus investing in an integrated approach with an unclear direct benefit. Responsible officials must ask questions, such as: Do we have to spend more money to be a part of the district? How much will it cost? What are we going to get from it? Are we going to get more than we have now?

Hutcheon found that communicating directly with local officials over a period of four years was the only way to succeed. "Not that everybody gets sold on it," he said, "but you get enough votes to say, OK."

For each potential integration partner, Hutcheon worked to allay such local concerns. Hutcheon's challenge was showing how investment in a health district -- which required the integration of town public health resources -- including information, would serve local constituencies' needs.

Shifting Agency Culture
Changing old work models, according to Martin Cirincione, executive deputy commissioner at the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, is a critical step in integration processes. Agency culture presented an initial barrier to New York's enterprisewide justice information integration initiative, eJusticeNY. "The culture within criminal justice agencies is inherently conservative. If you look at all the different functions performed by government, probably the oldest and most basic is public safety and the maintenance of order in society. Justice agencies have been around for a long time with this same mission.

"Our challenge is adopting new tools along the way that enable us to continue to achieve this mission. Realizing the full potential of information as a tool requires new ways of working and new technologies. We want one point of access that enables us to remain focused on our mission -- while taking advantage of new ways to support that mission."

Breaking through the conservative nature of most agencies, justice or otherwise, is what makes things work, said Cirincione. "Then you have an opportunity to get to the true collaboration-based improvements," he said. "CIOs must be masterful in working with all the necessary partners to develop a joint sense of shared purpose and an understanding of local, as well as enterprise, benefit."

Recognizing the Imperative
Support for information integration transcends partisan politics and crosses multiple policy areas or enterprises. In an August 2004 op-ed in The Washington Post, Sens. Hillary Clinton and Bill Frist called on the United States to realize the information revolution's full potential to improve the nation's health-care system. Both senators wrote that using technology to integrate information would improve care, lower costs, improve quality and empower consumers.

The arguments for integration within programs like public health and safety are compelling. As a result, agencies in these arenas tend to be early adopters of integrated information resources. In the public health enterprise, for example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have spent the last five years promoting information integration to provide timely high-quality data and information at all levels of government.

The U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), also an early adopter, has encouraged and supported enterprisewide criminal justice information integration between and among federal, state and local justice agencies. Information sharing, according to Domingo Herraiz, director of the Bureau of Justice Assistance in the DOJ's Office of Justice Programs, is the "cross-cutting prevention piece" that will allow communities to reduce crime and fight terrorism. The DOJ is investing in information sharing in the justice enterprise by developing technical tools such as XML standards for justice information sharing (see XML & Justice Integration on page 60).

While many acknowledge information integration's importance, the 2004 bipartisan 9/11 Commission Report presented a sobering picture of the public sector's current ability to leverage information. It emphasized that a weak system for processing and using information impedes the U.S. government's ability to best use the vast amount of information to which it has access.

Integrated information, and the barriers to achieving it, are fast becoming a focus of inquiry by digital government practitioners and researchers alike. Studies of cross-boundary information integration are being launched at the federal, state and local levels.

"The research community is working diligently with funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and other sources, but no one has hit the jackpot yet," said Larry Brandt, digital government program manager for the NSF. "If we discover how to do this in some broadly applicable way, we are going to be able to ask some interesting questions and provide some important analyses that we simply can't right now. Right now it is an unsolved problem."

Although the problem is unsolved, studies of information integration efforts are beginning to pay off by generating new knowledge about the complexity of these efforts and the conditions that constrain them.

One of the most powerful lessons learned is that only legislators and government policy-makers have the power to alleviate key constraints on enterprisewide, sustainable information integration strategies. These constraints are of particular concern as integration teams expand their efforts beyond agency-based, single problem-focused initiatives to enterprisewide information integration.

For information integration's value to be realized at the enterprise level, CIOs must work with elected officials and policy-makers to bridge the gap between what can be accomplished through project-level innovation and what is necessary for enterprisewide change.

Past legislation and executive policies, often enacted in response to a specific set of conditions, can inadvertently create institutional constraints that make already difficult management tasks even more problematic.

Since 1998, according to Theresa Brandorff, director and CIO for the Colorado Integrated Criminal Justice Information System (CICJIS), criminal justice agencies in Colorado have worked within a legislated initiative enacted to improve the matching of criminal dispositions across local and state law enforcement, and legal organizations in Colorado. The legislation, however, tied funding and decision-making to this single issue, and did not allow for future needs, said Brandorff. "It hampers agency efforts to expand Colorado's nationally recognized information sharing model to other areas of the criminal justice enterprise and to other enterprises, such as homeland security."

As CIO, Brandorff played a critical role in translating the needs of public managers into action recommendations for legislators and government policy-makers. This translation resulted in a new bill that was passed by the Colorado General Assembly and signed by Gov. Bill Owens in March of this year.

Turning Knowledge Into Action
Policy-makers, with the help of CIOs, can begin to back up their calls for integrated information resources through the development of policies that eliminate environmental constraints. Four recommendations -- drawn from studies undertaken at the Center for Technology in Government in concert with hundreds of government practitioners from across many program areas and levels of government -- present a starting point for the policy-making process.

Create Effective Cross-Boundary Governance Processes. Information integration projects often blur lines of authority and conflict with existing agency decision-making mechanisms. Cross-boundary governance structures need their own clear lines of authority and realistic membership rosters that recognize the political realities of public-sector decision-making. These should not arbitrarily replace existing lines of authority with cross-boundary governance structures that disregard how decision-making flows through agencies and branches of government. Rather, they must complement traditional mechanisms with transparent, realistic and flexible cross-boundary governance structures that, over time, can handle more and more challenging needs.

CIOs play a critical role in initiating legislative and executive policy changes -- changes that will enable governance structures to adapt to changing information integration needs. Brandorff noted that CIOs played a crucial role in Colorado's efforts to expand its successful information sharing model. "After acknowledging that the current statutes limited the CICJIS governance body in its efforts to expand operations with others as opportunities arise," she said, "the CIOs of our justice agencies were able to work with their executive directors to craft new statutory language that would enable the executive directors to expand the CICJIS model at their discretion."

Create Enterprise-Oriented Resource Allocation Models. Many government managers are hesitant to participate in information integration projects due to demands the projects make on funds already committed to agency-based programs. Past experience tells decision-makers that new cross-boundary integration projects drain people and money from already overstretched budgets, and most existing resource allocation models do not allow for the movement of money or people across agency lines. The National Governors Association pointed out in a 2002 report that stovepiped funding mechanisms often hinder integration projects. "Stovepipe funding generally undermines work on initiatives that cut across disciplines and agency boundaries when those initiatives are forced to compete for financial support with individual agencies' operational needs," the report stated.

Consequently, even when agencies recognize the value of integration efforts and are willing to commit resources, they can do so only in fits and bursts. But as projects become more complex and long term, they are stymied by the inevitable limitations of the old models. Even in situations where integration initiatives are sanctioned by key leaders, participation and commitment are severely limited by these conditions.

Many recognize that legislation must lay the foundation for resource allocation models that recognize and account for this new way of working. The Central Connecticut Health District's Hutcheon regularly saw his efforts challenged by traditional rules. "Another challenge we've been facing throughout the state of Connecticut is to get the state Legislature to address the existing insufficient capacity of local health departments to provide day-to-day basic public health functions, much less during a public health emergency," he said.

Current legislation under committee review in the Connecticut General Assembly proposes a resource allocation model that would perpetuate public health "stovepipes" at the local government level by funding numerous part-time public health directors throughout Connecticut to provide specific emergency response functions.

Unfortunately, emergency response is only one of 10 public health service areas mandated by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Alternative legislation, also under committee review and supported by the Connecticut Association of Directors of Health, includes a different resource allocation model that would facilitate the integration of public health resources across localities so towns could draw on full-time health departments that provide the full range of public health services rather than just emergency response.

Invest in Scalable and Sustainable Strategies. Many information integration projects unintentionally create new information silos in the form of horizontal "islands of information." An island of information is a collection of information related to a single problem or issue that only a select group of agencies may access. Past legislation and executive policies have often failed to recognize that enterprises are not static or forever tied to a single issue.

Enterprises and their member agencies change and will continue to change based on needs of the government and its citizens. While policies related to information integration often stem from the need to solve a specific problem, they also present leaders with the opportunity to make policies scalable to new issues and sustainable over time.

Dr. Amy Sullivan, epidemiologist with Oregon's Multnomah County Health Department's Disease Prevention and Control Division, described her challenges collaborating with external agencies on problem-specific and temporary or seasonal programs, such as West Nile Virus (WNV), compared to broader systemic programs such as bio-terrorism. "In planning for a WNV outbreak, I know the specific people in the specific agencies I need to work with to get the information my health department needs to most effectively support our county leadership and public. In support of my agency's bio-terrorism mission, I'm often dealing with agencies on a much more institutional level," she said. "And honestly, the interactions with individual people in problem-specific situations are just fine, whereas the institutional interactions on larger programs, such as bio-terrorism, can be more complicated."

Reduce Barriers to Noncrisis Capacity Building. Government agencies react well to crises, in part because they loosen the institutional and organizational constraints on multiorganizational efforts, such as information integration. Crisis response is myopic, however, because resources are targeted to respond to a specific situation. Committing resources to build government's overall response readiness becomes a priority on the public agenda following a crisis, but then tends to recede as quickly as it emerged.

Government leaders have the exclusive ability to sustain investments in overall response readiness by creating an environment that enables enterprisewide integrated information to be cultivated and improved over time so they are available to help avoid and respond to future crises. Investment in readiness requires tangible resources, such as personnel, equipment and infrastructure, but less tangible resources, such as capacities for collaboration among various government agencies, can be even more critical.

CTG's research into the response to the World Trade Center attacks showed that the organizations that interacted on a wide-range of daily operational needs were best able to join forces and share resources for crisis response and long-term recovery needs. CTG's report on this research can be found online at the Web site.

Multnomah County's Sullivan also found that for agencies to achieve information integration on a more systemic and institutional level, they must understand each other's missions and needs. To achieve this level of understanding, she said, agencies go through several stages of collaboration. The first stage is "shake hands." Meet and get to know the people from agencies you will be working with. The second stage is to coordinate planning and training with agencies through exercises and routine responses. Only after going through these first two stages can agencies reach the stage of true information integration. Building this collaboration capacity takes time and resources, and only through legislative and executive support can individual agencies begin to work through the first two stages and be prepared for information integration when and where it's needed.

Bridging the Gap
Public-sector CIOs can be the bridge between agency efforts to put information to work and policy-makers' efforts to create the environment necessary for this work to succeed. Policy-makers must be made aware that the very legislation they put forward in pursuit of better government may, in fact, constrain government managers' efforts to deliver exactly the results they want. Public CIOs have the knowledge and responsibility to bridge this gap. Just as in business, effective government CIOs are more than technology leaders; they understand their governments' policy priorities, the wide and varied missions of the operating agencies, and the power of both information and technology to leverage progress across the entire government enterprise.
Theresa A. Pardo Contributing Writer
Theresa Pardo is deputy director of the Center for Technology in Government and is also an associate research professor of public administration and policy at the University at Albany.