Improving E-Government Interoperability–Beyond Technology

Posted by Steve Mutkoski 
Senior Standards Strategist

While participating in e-Government panel discussions on three continents last month, I heard loudly that the impediments to effective e-Government interoperability are no longer primarily technical. Leading policymakers, practitioners and academics agreed that the real challenges today are semantic, organizational, legal and political. You can have perfect technical interconnection of your information systems, for example, but you won’t have interoperability unless people in different agencies know how to collaborate on information sharing and are willing to do so.

This human factor was spotlighted on the first page of the program for the United Nations University 3rd International Conference on Theory and Practice of Electronic Governance, which noted “growing recognition that over-reliance on technology, insufficient collaboration in government, lack of building human capacity and inadequate public consultation all limit possible benefits of [e-Government] initiatives.” The bulk of the presentations focused on these non-technical impediments to e-Government.

In Singapore, where I participated in a three-day workshop on government innovation at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, a co-panelist from the United Nations Development Program suggested that government technology projects fail precisely because they are viewed as technology projects, when in fact the technology issues today are “trivial” compared to the organizational, managerial and personnel issues. The presenter commented, “If you are spending more time thinking about what is taking place in your machine rooms than what is taking place in the offices and conference rooms of your workplace, you may be missing the boat.”

This presentation reminded me of a whitepaper I’d recently read by a leading eGovernment practitioner who made similar points.

Then why, I asked in my presentations, are the primary toolsets provided to governments still focused on the technology layer? The primary toolset I see is the so-called “e-Government Interoperability Framework” (eGIF), which often delves deep down into the technical layer, going so far as to establish a national “standards catalog” (or listing of required standards specifications) for e-Government purposes. I presented data raising questions about the value and efficacy of eGIF standards catalogs.

This was controversial at the Internet Governance Forum in Egypt, where my fellow panelists from the Dynamic Coalition on Open Standards were for the most part heavily invested in eGIF standards catalogs and therefore skeptical of my direction. But at other venues, I saw the reaction I was looking for when I questioned the value of creating a catalog of standards like HTML, XML, HTTP and so on, when it is nearly impossible to design or sell a product that does not support these standards.

Near the end of my tour, at a workshop in Bangkok with several government policymakers, I heard first-hand accounts of a government looking at a broader toolset, one based on the concept of “Enterprise Architecture” that will require the government to place far more emphasis on issues above the technology layer. While I am not sure this approach holds all the answers, it strikes me as a good starting point for a discussion on what tools governments will need in the next decade to make further strides in e-Government.

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