Feds jump online integration hurdles

System architects leverage XML and Web services interfaces

Can services-oriented architectures help government agencies provide better self-service? In the race to provide online government self-service, integration is one of the biggest roadblocks. Most governments are heavily invested in custom legacy applications. Linking Web-based self-service applications to those systems is difficult for any organization, but for government agencies, the problem is compounded.

“You’ve got a lot of decentralized systems stovepiped along budgetary lines,” explains Tom Roberts, vice president of industry solutions at webMethods. “There’s a lot of redundancy and a lot of incompatibility among different systems. … Behind the scenes there’s a lot of ugliness.”

Roberts’ colleague Bob Jones, director of webMethods’ government business unit, adds that many of the self-service Web portals that agencies deploy are incompatible and are incapable of sharing data. “For an agency, portals are a great method of communication, but it’s also siloing them from the other agencies,” Jones says.

One potential solution is architectural. Many government agencies are starting to deploy enterprisewide architectures leveraging XML and Web services interfaces to improve integration. Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, for example, is using Web services to reduce redundant data entry on forms. The Georgia Technology Authority is developing a Web services-based portal for integrated access to citizen services. And the Department of the Navy is one of several agencies sponsoring XML working groups and efforts to create XML templates and schemas that define its business processes.

According to Roberts, the new attitude spreading in government is, “ ‘We’re going to do very sharp, pointy projects. We’re going to create the directory of services and make those available on an interagency basis.’ It’s a clear break from how projects used to be approached, which was a big monolithic project appropriation.”

But Don Arnold, director of federal government business development at PeopleSoft, says organizational change will be just as critical in enabling integrated self-service experiences. “Technology’s not the obstacle with XML and the ability to bridge systems together,” he says. “It’s turf — what I own and how I protect it. The challenge is changing the underlying structure of government.”

Arnold points to a services-oriented innovation in the United Kingdom, where, under the guidance of the prime minister’s e-Envoy, individual agencies are taking on horizontal slices of service delivery that are broader than their actual mission and that are defined with a customer rather than an agency orientation. One agency, for example, is responsible for all export-license applications, which it provides as a contract service to other agencies. “It’s an interesting way to achieve integrated service delivery and transparency,” Arnold says.