Technology

The Anti-Silo Solution

Coming up with the cash and willpower to build IT projects across agency lines
by | January 2003

Rows of chairs are set out theater-style in Mike Leavitt's boardroom, the better to accommodate a crowd. Utah's governor and his guests are watching a series of presentations about information technology projects vying for top-level approval and the money that comes with it. First up, a PowerPoint presentation explains how services for welfare, food stamp and child care recipients can be knit together. Next, there's a talk about a possible consolidation of e-mail service for the executive, legislative and judicial branches. Later, there's a look at a one-stop business registration project that would join together the electronic processes of three departments.

The audience, which breaks into applause--even cheers--at highlights of the presentations, is no run-of-the-mill group. Sitting with the governor are the executive and deputy directors of 17 cabinet agencies. They make up an e-government council that gets together once a month to evaluate and set priorities for large IT projects that cross agency boundaries and compete for resources. Once they decide which projects will get a green light, the agencies that will profit from the technology agree to pump resources from their budgets into the technology.

It is the beginning of a solution to a situation many states face: how to fund costly but high-performance information technology projects that serve more than one agency. A legislative appropriation is not usually the answer: In most states, there is no legislative committee to oversee expenditures for technology projects that involve several agencies and target a business process common to them all. As Leavitt pointed out in remarks he made recently about hurdles in funding IT projects for homeland security, "It drives legislative auditors crazy when you want to take money from one agency and give it to another."

The executive branch is no better. Each department or agency has its own budget to protect--and its own IT projects to push. Leavitt sees the overall cross-agency IT funding problem as the silo issue writ large. "If there isn't a means of assuring commonality and a shared vision," he says, "you end up with independent technology kingdoms."

Those are expensive kingdoms to run. While automating processes and putting basic constituent services online can reduce costs, allowing agencies to build duplicate systems is counterproductive. The point Leavitt is acting on--and a handful of other governors are beginning to work on--is that a state government stands to benefit fiscally if agency funds and IT processes are pooled.

PULLING THE PURSE STRINGS

Funding e-processes is easier when it occurs within one department--no matter how complicated the project and internal resistance. Florida, for instance, is launching a business and professional licensing project for the 1 million licenses it issues. That includes 178 different license types that emanate from about 70 different databases or accounting systems. The push to consolidate the licensing process came after "years of complaints about how the department operated, about bad government and the inability to respond, and after 10 years of feasibility studies," says Mitch Hardin, chief of staff of the Department of Business and Professional Regulation. Funding, though, was relatively easy. Hardin says the project found support from the House and Senate committees that are "our two primary committees."

Cross-agency IT projects, however, rarely have a primary committee. There may be four, six or even eight different committees that have jurisdiction over the various participating agencies. For instance, the one-stop business-registration application Utah wants to build involves five agencies, but legislative committees fund by agency, not by business purpose. The chief information officer could try to get a technology committee to appropriate money for the project, but most IT strategists say that doesn't make sense, either. The problem, they say, is that it's not an IT project, it's a business project and no committees do that.

Funding is not the only problem lawmakers have with cross-agency projects. "Whenever you change something dramatically, challenges have to be met," says Leonard Blackham, who chairs the Executive Appropriations Committee. "A lot of times it's turf related." TOP GUNS

Governor Leavitt is using the power of his position and the stature of his cabinet officials to arm-wrestle agencies into meeting the challenge. Members of the e-government council are asked to agree on what to fund and how, and to build the project or projects together. That also means that agencies with systems that don't "talk" to each other agree that they won't upgrade or build new systems on their own. "In many cases, you're asking agencies to defer an agency priority for the purpose of the enterprise," Leavitt says. "The only way those judgments can be made are at the executive level."

There's no guarantee that the display of power from the top will do the trick. The top-down method of project endorsement began only last August. None of the 10 projects given the green light by the council has as yet had enough time to go from planning to operation. Still, setting up the process makes it clear that agencies can no longer act as if they are separate organizations with independent missions.

Another approach--and one Missouri and a few other states have begun to work on--is to overhaul the technological infrastructure so that all systems can communicate with each other. That way, collaboration will be smoother when future projects are undertaken. The process is called enterprise architecture, and it's a long-term, costly and painstaking solution. The council arrangement is a more immediate, albeit interim, step. Utah IT officials see enterprise architecture as a great underpinning. They don't intend to abandon infrastructure but want to make progress in the meantime.

GETTING THE GREEN LIGHT

At its simplest, what the Utah Cabinet e-government council method does is charter projects. By signing onto the charter, participating agencies put in writing what they expect to give to and get from the project. Projects are run past the council three separate times: First, when there is a vision for a new IT product or service. Second, when there is a detailed document that outlines purpose, scope and costs. The third time is when a charter is drawn up that includes agencies' commitments of financing, personnel and space and the assignment of a project director.

One of the first projects to reach the charter stage is eREP, or electronic Resource and Eligibility Product. The Utah departments that deal with health, workforce and human resources will integrate electronic services relating to benefits eligibility so that eligibility determinations are consistent across the state and clients have 24-hour access to their information. Clients of the three participating departments receive TANF (Temporary Aid to Needy Families) assistance, Medicaid, child care services and food stamps.

Each of the agencies has an antiquated eligibility computer system. The idea behind the project is that it makes no sense for each agency to upgrade its system separately.

The project is being built now. During the first iteration, only TANF block grant money, a relatively flexible source of federal funding, will be part of the program, and that means the first programs to be operational will serve TANF clients. Under the charter that the three agencies signed, food stamps and Medicaid will be folded into the system after that.

There is a potential glitch in all this, however. Each federal department that provides funding for entitlement programs must approve state agency plans for using it, if it's above a certain amount. "Any time we have to mix funds, we have to get approval," says Connie Laws, the project executive. So if, when Utah gets ready to build an eligibility application for food stamps, for example, the U.S. Department of Agriculture does not grant approval to use those federal funds to join the system, the cross-agency project will not be as comprehensive as the state had hoped. But the work will not be for naught. The Department of Workforce Services will still have a system up and running that will bring efficiencies to the agency.

The written agreement that the three agencies hashed out and signed details what resources they will contribute in money and staff. It also outlines what business processes they will need to change to be a part of the project. Two of the three agencies may be waiting in the wings now, but they have committed to participating when the time comes. Juggling all this takes perseverance. "I shouldn't fool anybody," says Laws. "It's not easy. It takes a commitment."

But Governor Leavitt is pretty sure he's on the right track, that the high-level council is the best way to get important IT projects moving. "It's a means," he says, "by which cogent and consistent policies can be made."

ACTION POINTERS

For most states, moving agencies to design and build common projects has been a near-impossible task. A few have managed to get some going. One is Pennsylvania and its Web site, PA Open for Business, which offers businesses the efficiency of filling out only one form to register with three different state agencies. Behind the scenes, of course, the three cooperating agencies--the departments of Industry, Revenue and Labor, and State--have their own individual back-end systems with data that have to be "translated" to be able to speak with the other systems. "If I could get them to use one common system, I could retire," says Marty Rupert, the portal's project manager. "I could sell that idea across the world."

Some joint projects go deeper than others, in terms of how they function. If there's a Web layer that "sits on top" of all the state's legacy systems, it may be easier for customers to do their Internet business. But there still is a tangle of different systems behind the pretty screens. It is a "shallow" solution to the mismatched pieces of state government. For instance, if there were an address change in one agency's system and the change is not automatically made in the others, the system is not as efficient as it could be.

On the other hand, changing the culture of agencies to make the deeper changes in systems is no picnic. The deeper a system goes, the harder the politics of it becomes. It simply is easier to do shallow projects even though there is less value to be gained. At least there is some progress.

Ellen Perlman
Ellen Perlman  |  Former columnist
mailbox@governing.com  | 

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. You can enter an anonymous Display Name or connect to a social profile.

More from Technology