Government Technology

Solving the Integration Puzzle

May 5, 2005 By

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

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