By Craig Shank
General Manager, Interoperability Group

In a Brussels speech last week, Neelie Kroes, Vice President of the European Commission for the Digital Agenda, said: “We are now living through a permanent digital revolution. This long and peaceful revolution is changing how we organize our lives. Powerful computing platforms are creating new markets and we are finding new ways to leverage user creativity.”

One of the ways that this digital revolution manifests itself is in how citizens expect to interact with government.  Especially in light of the economic downturn, citizens the world over are increasingly calling for  greater transparency, greater accountability, greater efficiency and ease of use in government services akin to that offered by online service providers like Amazon, eBay and others.

The move toward e-government has been under way for quite some time, but efforts have often been stymied by organizational, legal, semantic and technical obstacles. For example, data is often locked up in islands of legacy technology, governments have differing legal requirements for access to that data, and the meaning of similar data in different systems can vary substantially. Far-flung geographies, multiple languages and complex nation-state relationships – such as those faced by agencies working on e-government solutions in India and the European Union – further complicate challenges facing the public sector.

Governments increasingly recognize these challenges and are stepping up their efforts to improve how they deliver service digitally. This week OASIS (the Organization for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards), a worldwide standards consortium, together with the World Bank’s e-Development Group, will hold a Transformational Government Workshop in Washington, D.C., which is designed to help the public sector use information and communications technology (ICT) more effectively. Next week in Brussels, representatives from EU member states will meet at the Lift-off towards “Open Government” conference, which has a particular focus on cross-border interoperability for e-Government services. 

Increasingly, broad and connected e-government services mirror the complex interactions between people and underlying governmental processes, which take place across borders and cultural divides.  Developing solutions that satisfy citizens’ reasonable expectations will require far more than solving highly technical challenges. Government agencies must engage a range of stakeholders to ensure that systems deliver on their potential.  Success will depend upon effectively executing on four bedrock principles:

  1. Government agencies should focus first on delivering services that meet the public’s need.
  2. With that need in mind, the key stakeholders should agree on what success looks like at the outset of any e-government project and what will be needed to achieve that success – not just as a technical matter, but in light of the important organizational, legal, political and cultural mappings between different systems.
  3. Government agencies will also need to speak the same language across borders – figuratively, not literally – and agree on the meaning and use of their data, independent of organization, culture or language differences.
  4. Government agencies should make use of widely adopted technical standards to facilitate interoperability, rather than focus upon any particular technology, vendor solution or development approach.

Industry vendors recognize there is no such thing as a one-stop shop to fulfill all government ICT needs. As such, they have worked together to establish a set of standards that helps enable technical interoperability across a variety of computing platforms. Starting from this foundation of technical interoperability, governments must focus on the tough but critical work to align organizational, legal and semantic requirements effectively. Together with the ICT industry, they must engage citizens as stakeholders in defining the next generation of e-government services.

ICT can play a positive, transformative role in government. Yet, completing this transformation will take far more than simply wiring systems together or re-implementing existing citizen relationships in the digital world.  The foundation for success should include a holistic view of the services and stakeholder relationships, coupled with the enormous benefits that can be delivered through increasing connectivity, thoughtful and well-managed transparency of government data and an architectural shift toward cloud computing. Once established, that foundation will help governments worldwide meet citizen needs, spur economic growth and adapt effectively to changes in technology.