Collaboration in Government IT, Part 2: Putting It in Place

Part 1 of this series looks at the need for, and benefits of, collaborative CRM applications in government. This final installment focuses on implementation.

Rapid and cheaper deployment and the enhanced information sharing and communications collaborative applications afford organizations are helping the technology catch on in government agencies just as they are in private sector enterprises.

“Today’s government agencies face growing pressure to improve efficiency, increase transparency and enhance constituent services,” noted Wayne Bobby, vice president of public sector finance and administration solutions for Oracle. “Agencies leverage a variety of applications to achieve these goals including financial management, human resources and customer relationship management (CRM) software applications.”

Out With the Old

The longstanding U.S. government practice of employing major systems integrators to design and oversee the building of customized, one-of-a-kind application suites is being phased out, Rob Place, director of government sales at AT&T’s Sterling Commerce, told CRM Buyer. “Government agencies are in the initial phases of transition from their proprietary, one-off systems to service oriented architecture-based systems.”

Phasing in a new generation of collaborative software systems is going to take some time and a lot of effort.

“Most IT systems, even if SAP or Oracle, are procured and implemented through a major system integrator. The drawbacks primarily are poor system designs and long range plans due to most of the SI’s lack of experience with SOA (service-oriented architecture) designs, development and implementations. Mainly, these applications were developed for internal agency users and, more importantly, specified users of selected divisions within an agency,” Place noted.

Conditions changed dramatically after Sept. 11, 2001. The terrorist attacks “had a profound impact on the United States and, in particular, our government and how it does business,” Place continued. “Based on an Executive Branch directive for a more collaborative, efficient and cost-effective government, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) published the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA) to which all agencies must adhere.

“Based on OMB mandate, they should be SOA-based and modular in design. As in the case of the General Services Administration (GSA), the largest goods supplier in the world, they have a 26-year-old ‘homegrown’ system that does not meet today’s demands for supply and support to government agencies. GSA stated they want a ‘Best Buy’ type solution to meet their ever increasing demands.”

The Shift to Off-the-Shelf

Government IT contracts are among the IT industry’s largest, longest term and most lucrative. Competition for them is fierce. SAP, Oracle, IBM and BEA are the predominant software vendors when you look broadly across the government services sector, according to Place.

“Historically, these systems have cost the government agencies that have begun their transitions tens of millions of dollars. For example, the U.S. Transportation Command is in the process of awarding a contract for a program known as Agile Transportation for the 21st Century (AT21) with an estimated lifecycle cost of over (US)$100 million.”

Nowadays, however, in-house, custom-built systems are giving way to commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products.

Facilitating Collaboration

Government agencies are increasingly turning to Software as a Service (SaaS) CRM and ERP applications that leverage the collaborative attributes of the Internet to deliver services to constituents.

“This not only saves government a lot of money by precluding the need to purchase, maintain and upgrade any hardware or software, but providing the additional layer of collaboration that only the Internet can provide,” vice president of public sector product strategy Kaveh Vessali told CRM Buyer.

“To truly be collaborative, systems need to be Internet-based, but government agencies are slower to adopt new technologies. Oftentimes capital projects are easier to fund than an ongoing expense, and there is also an assumption that government owned and operated infrastructure is more secure and cost effective than using a shared platform, despite evidence to the contrary,” Vessali noted.

The cost of independently owned and operated solutions on separate IT platforms will only increase as government’s need to communicate electronically with citizens continues to grow, he continued. “The development of an integrated model for user identity, task sharing, information access and alert notification increasingly favors the use of scalable on-demand solutions as the core for government collaborative systems.”

Web 2.0, SaaS and the Cloud

Government agencies are also turning to social networking and other collaborative Web 2.0 technology to facilitate greater, more effective constituent and intra-governmental interaction.

“Approaches such as the ‘enterprise social networking’ solutions by Neighborhood America are a complement to CRM systems because they enable governments to strategically engage constituents, adding to the CRM system’s capacity for managing the business processes that support the delivery of services to constituents,” Vessali explained.

One of the greatest benefits of using a multitenant SaaS architecture to provide government services is the instant interoperability and systems integration it provides, across organizations utilizing the service.

“In other words, if a government’s local planning department, zoning department and public works department each subscribe to the Salesforce service for one or another of their case management applications, all three agencies can receive a constituent’s building permit application and share constituent data — with granular sharing and security control — at the click of a mouse,” Vessali explained.

Integrating existing data and applications with “Web 2.0 technologies and ensuring interoperability within the cloud is another area where the Web-services architectures of SaaS solutions provide an advantage over traditional on-premise software approaches,” he continued.

“Sharing access to data and collaborating across agencies or with private/nonprofit sector partners — or even across divisions within an agency — has remained a challenge due to the technical difficulty of ensuring interoperability among collaborating partners. This is one area where Software as a Service provides a distinct advantage, because the very nature of a multi-tenant cloud computing environment provides inherent interoperability across all processes running across the platform,” Vessali maintained.

Keys to Success

One of the keys to IBM’s success in building collaborative systems for government is its Portal technology, explained IBM federal region collaboration specialist Thomas Hinders. “In many instances, users need to access data from multiple systems. The aggregation functions of Portal brings a unified view of information to an employee, customer, contractor or C-level executive,” he told CRM Buyer.

Another key and source of added value, “is bringing together people and content in context.” This is accomplished in two ways.

“The first is our set of real-time collaboration tools, which allow users to locate subject matter experts and have instant chats with people who have the answers they are looking for. For example, you can bring together a group of people from various departments to discuss budgets or contract verbiage, without relying on asynchronous methods like e-mail. The second is helping to manage the content itself, providing a unified location for all knowledge. They help keep documentation and processes organized and up-to-date, for everyone to access.”

Three factors distinguish successful government collaboration initiatives, according to Vessali. “First, we believe the technologies need to be Internet-based to be truly collaborative. SaaS or on-demand platforms allow government agencies and organizations to avoid costly infrastructure investments that are underutilized. They enable rapid deployment to reinforce success quickly, and lower risk by making it easier to do rapid prototyping and phased implementations which bring immediate benefits.

“Second, the system must be easy to with as few key strokes as possible. It should take advantage of existing tools such as Outlook and mobile devices. Also, the system must have the capability to be modified very quickly due to rapid changes in the marketplace. Users can’t wait for the next software release to accomplish their work.

“Lastly, it is important to have the right implementation methodology, including good project management and clear goals, involving strong executive sponsorship and participation of key players. These aspects are crucial for adoption of the system and during training.”

What’s the 311?

Oracle works with federal, state and local governments “to implement integrated business applications that help increase efficiency and transparency, enable collaboration across agencies and third parties, deliver citizen services, and ensure compliance with dynamic regulation.” Collaborative systems can be very effective in this regard, Oracle’s Bobby maintained.

Major vendors such as Oracle and SAP work with local governments to design and build CRM software that powers non-emergency 3-1-1 online and telecommunications services, as well as integrate and streamline financial and human resources processes, such as revenue collection, purchasing, hiring and payroll.

“With a 3-1-1 system, citizens benefit from one easy-to-remember point of contact for government information and services, while government agencies minimize non-emergency calls to 9-1-1, leverage visibility into cross-departmental data, enhance service delivery, and reduce administrative costs,” Bobby told CRM Buyer.

Identifying a project’s key objectives — whether increasing revenues, improving productivity or delivering improved constituent services — is a critical starting point, Bobby maintained.

In addition “government agencies can ease the implementation process — as well as future upgrades — by deploying open, standards-based applications that integrate easily with each other or with third-party solutions, so they can get up and running quickly. By avoiding time-consuming and costly customizations, agencies can reduce implementation and maintenance costs significantly.”

However, applications are only as good as the people using them, Bobby pointed out. Getting buy-in from both high-level executives and employees is therefore another key factor for success. Following through with effective training necessarily follows. “Successful implementation teams understand the value of involving employees from various departments in the process and keeping the lines of communication open throughout the process to ensure that cultural change accompanies technological change,” he maintained.

Collaboration in Government IT, Part 1: Needs and Benefits

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