05 Jan Digital expert touts use of social computing by government
Madison, Wis. – Perhaps inspired by Barack Obama’s use of social computing technology during the 2008 Presidential campaign, various units of government have been experimenting with social networks as a way to improve service delivery.
It’s a trend that’s in the very early stages, but Paul Taylor, chief strategy officer for the Center for Digital Government, sees a great deal of value in it. Taylor was in Madison last month for the annual Wisconsin Digital Government Summit, and he described the move to computer-enabled social networks in a back-to-the-future way.
“I think we’re early, and the analogy that I would make is to the Web that did not have a version number – the original Web in 1995, ’96,” he said. “We’re back there again in terms of government’s use of the Web. There is a lot of experimentation, and then there is some that actually has been put into what might be called production-level use.”
Taylor believes technologies like Facebook will be applied to a greater extent by government because tech-savvy populations like young veterans covet such applications. In Virginia, the commonwealth’s website includes Turbo Vet, a secure web-based tool to facilitate the filing of veteran’s disability claims. Turbo Vet features the question-and-answer interview style that comes from TurboTax, and it’s coupled with a social network where returning servicemen and women can pose questions to one another.
TurboVet combines tribal intelligence of soldiers in dealing with government agencies such as Veterans Administration, with an automated tool that literally takes them through binders full of arcane rules and regulations and allows them to quickly find a short list of benefits for which they are eligible.
These social tools are among the same type of application – everything from Skype to Facebook to blogs – they use to stay in touch with their love ones while serving overseas. Their social networking skills have been learned in the desert in Iraq or in Afghanistan, and now they are coming home.
“The automated tools allow them to navigate through this myriad of rules, regulations, and eligibility criteria,” Taylor explained. “Once they have that, they enter into a social network with other returning soldiers that might be three, five, or six months ahead of them in these processes.
“They share answers to questions and opinions, and they gripe a little bit, too, apparently, but that’s pretty common in social networks,” he said, chuckling. “It increases the capacity for the Commonwealth to serve them.”
The application of social networking tools can be done for the recipients of any government service, and Taylor said Virginia also is applying social networking technologies to people looking for jobs in areas with high unemployment, and to people with disabilities.
In terms of their use of technology, governments are gradually becoming more sophisticated, Taylor indicated. He cited joint eligibility systems and master licensing applications that present government and its services, including regulations across different agencies, on a common Web interface. About one third of the states “are there” with child and family services applications, he said.
“There is a great deal of engineering just below the surface,” Taylor noted, “but for the citizen or the business owner, it’s straightforward in terms of engaging government once and being able to have the information collected once and used many times to fulfill eligibility requirements for the individual and business licensing requirements across different agencies.”
In the last five years in particular, between the dotcom recession and the current recession, a lot of states and localities have invested in improving their business climates by taking the agencies that regulate or license businesses and creating a common application the agencies share. Taylor said that makes it less onerous to meet regulatory requirements for government, and does more than just “stretch a thin veneer over seven stove pipes.”
“It actually does some pretty sophisticated data parsing and that’s got a direct economic tie,” he said, citing the provision of this service as an example of a state or locality being welcoming to business.
No news, good news
State government in Wisconsin has done well to stay out of the headlines during the past year, Taylor indicated. After a series of failures that culminated in a state audit of technology projects, and in the departure of controversial CIO Matt Miszewski, the state has had a lower profile. The worst news from 2008 was security breaches that involved the visible mailing of Social Security numbers, and that was largely the fault of the vendor, EDS.
Nevertheless, state agencies have been directed to end the practice of using Social Security numbers as personal identifiers, a process that is underway.
Taylor’s impression is that the state has focused on getting ongoing IT projects done and over the finish line. “That creates a platform for them moving forward in a way that rather than finishing or cleaning up from the past, they’ve got a solid foundation to begin the process of their own experimentation or early deployments of some of these other technologies that fall under the rubric of Web 2.0,” he said.
“It’s stuff that isn’t sexy enough to make the headlines, but then you’ve got a governance structure and a policy structure that takes fiercely competitive, independent agencies and causes them to work together in ways where you get things done and improve the level of service delivery,” he said. “That buys you permission to do the next thing, and I think Wisconsin is just now at that tipping point of resolving some old issues from e-mails to the implementation of the MMIS (Medicaid Management Information System) and those things.
“Having a proven track record in that regard, it buys them a set of permissions to do what’s next.”
Taylor senses that state CIOs are doing a better job of designing their implementations to avoid the kind of IT failures that bedeviled Wisconsin and other jurisdictions. However, those types of failures usually are organizational in nature, not just on the CIO’s shoulders.
In most cases, he said it’s beneficial to have a governance structure that defines the fence posts in which IT projects operate and involves other business units in project management. With the fence posts and other management choke points in place, it’s far less likely that projects will go off the rails because of poor discipline.
Taylor referred to this structure as the “CIO-plus” model.
“What good CIOs know is that it’s not just the CIO,” he said. “The CIO certainly has a role, and he or she has got responsibility, and to use an unfortunately old term, his or hers is the neck to be strangled in many of these situations when it goes down. For the CIO to work with the agency directors that actually own the system, that’s the relationship that often divides success from failure.
“When the agency director can’t simply outsource to the CIO, it’s a roll-up-your-sleeves operation, being at the meetings, taking the phone calls, resolving things as they happen quickly. To use a football analogy, the agency director has to provide air cover for the ground game. When that happens, you tend to have success. When it’s outsourced to the CIO alone, without that executive muscle, things peter out and fail.”