Global Trend or Passing Fad: Putting Government Services Online

Article Summary:
Around the world, government is turning into e-government, as local, state, and federal government entities move more of their content and services onto the Web. Although the public sector lags behind the private sector in implementing Internet technologies, e-government projects have benefited from the lessons of e-commerce pioneers, and many governments now offer interactive, transaction-oriented Web sites. Some governments, as in the United Kingdom, are even experimenting with voting online. In the process, government is undergoing a shift toward a more customer-centric, service-oriented model—a transformation that may lead to profound changes in the way we think about government and democracy.

Rock the E-Vote
One of the most headline-grabbing e-government topics of the past few years has been online voting. That’s no surprise—in the wake of the U.S. presidential election in 2000, many people are eager to replace hanging chads and butterfly ballots with something that’s both easier to use and more reliable. “Obviously, Florida in 2000 was an accelerator toward people wanting more sophisticated election technology,” says Deborah Brunton, vice president of public affairs for VoteHere, a provider of kiosk-based and online voting products (Cisco is a minority investor in VoteHere).

But despite an initial burst of enthusiasm, actual progress toward e-voting has been slow—although interest in other forms of computer-aided voting remains strong. In tests conducted by VoteHere in Arizona, more than 80% of voters liked the company’s computer-based voting kiosk. In Riverside, California, touch-screen-enabled kiosks supplied by Sequoia Pacific Voting Equipment for the 2000 election were enthusiastically received, with a 99% approval rating. But voting over the Internet poses additional technical and logistical obstacles:

  • Authentication (making sure voters really are who they say they are)
  • Security (protecting the voting system against hacking attempts)
  • Privacy (to ensure that ballots remain anonymous)
  • Auditability (making sure there is an adequate paper trail to verify the vote)

    “The whole idea of Internet voting hasn’t yet taken off,” says Michele Grisham, practice lead for state and local government in Cisco’s Internet Business Solutions Group (IBSG), which advises governments on setting e-government strategies.

    Computer security and cryptography experts are even more skeptical. “The fundamentals of computer science as we know it today won’t make [online voting] secure enough,” says Bruce Schneier, founder and chief technology officer at Counterpane Internet Security, Inc., in Cupertino, California.

    “Without more secure platforms, it’s not going to happen,” agrees Avi Rubin, a research scientist at AT&T Labs and author of the book White Hat Security Arsenal from Addison-Wesley. “I don’t see platforms secure enough coming into existence in the foreseeable future,” he adds.

    Voting by Touch Screen and SMS
    Still, experimentation with computer-assisted voting continues. In the United Kingdom’s May 2002 elections, 50 townships will offer a variety of high-tech voting alternatives as part of a pilot program. Among the experiments are Web-based voting for citizens living in Swindon Township (where VoteHere is supplying the online voting system) and mobile phone voting via short message service (SMS) in Sheffield. “This marks an important first step toward e-voting across the country,” says local government minister Nick Raynsford.

    For its part, the United States is not without progress. For example:

  • An election reform bill currently being considered by Congress could put $2.65 billion into election technologies.
  • The State of California just passed a $200 million election reform bond to upgrade voting systems in the state.
  • Many counties are already using or investigating voting systems that use optical scanners and computer tabulation to count paper ballots. The State of Georgia has recently issued a request for proposal to upgrade the entire state’s voting systems to touch-screen systems.
  • VoteHere is involved with several states’ pilot projects to offer online voting to overseas military personnel.

    While widespread online voting may be a distant dream, experiments will continue. According to VoteHere’s Brunton, many localities will start with touch-screen voting at their usual polling places, then move touch-screen polls to new locations, such as libraries, courthouses, and even malls. Eventually, Brunton says, this evolution will lead people to become more comfortable with the idea of voting at home via their PCs.

    A Portal into Your Government
    One thing that citizens already seem comfortable doing from home is accessing government services and information. Many states have implemented e-government portals that provide one-stop access to a host of government services, agencies, and departments. “Portals have been really hot for a while. Now most of the states have one,” says Cisco’s Grisham.

    For example, the State of Michigan launched an e-government portal in July 2001. Using the portal, online visitors can make reservations for state park campgrounds, buy hunting and fishing licenses, look up state-certified daycare centers and nursing homes, and get information about local schools. The portal, built by Deloitte Consulting, started with a few basic services. Subsequently, over 150 Web sites from 43 different Michigan agencies are being migrated to the portal’s Vignette and IBM WebSphere-based technology platform, with the goal of completing the migration by May 2002.

    In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Tony Blair has ordered that all government services be available online by 2005. Government ministries have responded with a wide range of online services. For example, a new cyber-court launched in the United Kingdom in February 2002 gives citizens the ability to make debt claims of up to £100,000 online (for instance, a landlord might use the system to sue for rent money owed by a tenant). And participants in court trials in England can get updates about the status of their trials via SMS, e-mail, or pager.

    Just keeping track of all the services and content on an e-government portal is a major challenge. Accordingly, content management software figures large. “Content management is the killer app for e-government today,” says Greg Pellegrino, a partner at Deloitte Consulting and the leader of the company’s global e-government practice. Such software allows nontechnical government workers to update content as needed, while providing a common management platform.

    Government Transformed
    E-government portals are changing the way governments think about providing services to their constituents. A portal can make Web site visitors feel like customers, enabling citizens to focus on the services they’re interested in rather than being forced to negotiate Byzantine government bureaucracies. “It’s definitely the case that we’re in the transition phase from the e-government experimental era to one of much greater interactivity, and a much greater emphasis on enterprise transformation,” Pellegrino says.

    This will eventually lead to the notion of a “seamless government,” says Mark Badger, Ph.D., the international government practice lead for Cisco IBSG. When government processes and services are streamlined, it’s easier to focus on the social goals behind those systems, Badger says. “It’s opening up the process for people to participate in actually building a better society,” he says.

    Seamless government may also make life a little easier. For instance, in Ontario, Canada, the government is implementing a new electronic strategy. Once the new system is in place, when a citizen fills out a police report for a lost wallet, the information will automatically be routed to different ministries so that the person can request a replacement driver’s license, health care ID card, and even fishing license—all without having to fill out any additional paperwork.

    While portals present a simplified front end, governments are also looking for smoother exchange of information behind the scenes. With better information sharing between agencies and departments, it’s easier, for example, for the FBI to alert a state agency that it shouldn’t provide a driver’s license or identification card to a certain person.

    “[Governments] want instantaneous access to information that is in hundreds of databases. The only way you can achieve that kind of integration in any cost-effective way is to leverage Web technologies,” says Cisco’s Grisham.

    Stimulating Development and Democracy
    E-government can stimulate economic development, according to Cisco’s Badger. “On the Pacific Rim, countries such as New Zealand and Singapore are setting up smart e-government environments, so it’s easy to transact business there,” he says.

    If a company can fill out incorporation documents or import/export forms online, that can translate directly into cost savings. The availability of a good underlying Internet infrastructure and of an educated, Net-savvy workforce is also attractive to business.

    Ultimately, e-government may lead to a loftier notion: e-democracy. “The notion of more open access to democracy is a theme for e-government,” says Deloitte’s Pellegrino. In the United Kingdom, the Office of the e-Envoy is charged with not only getting government services online, but also using technology to encourage greater participation in government by the citizens.

    The Hansard Society, a nonprofit organization promoting parliamentary democracy, has worked with the U.K. Parliament in various pilot projects aimed at including more citizens in policy-making decisions. These projects have been well-received by citizens and members of parliament alike—in a recent consultation aimed at collecting input on government benefits, 94% of participants said they would be willing to participate in another such project. But the Hansard Society points out that obstacles remain. For instance, how do you increase citizen access to government via the Internet, when only 32% of British households have access to the Internet?

    One thing is certain: The more services governments put online, the more they are encouraging their constituents to become savvy consumers of those services. Eventually, that may make them more engaged citizens as well. The real question, says Badger, is: “How do you use technology to go from doing things better to doing better things?”

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  • Global Trend or Passing Fad: Putting Government Services Online

    Buying Industrial-Strength Tech on the Cheap

    How do you run an IT department on a tight budget? Two words: Linux and eBay.

    Five years ago, if you had proposed running some of your company’s most critical applications on an operating system originally developed by a longhaired Finnish teenager and given away for free, your IT manager would have laughed you out of his office. That has changed, though, as Linux has become more versatile and powerful (though it’s still cheap). In fact, a new version of Linux is suitable for just about anything your company wants to throw at it.

    For the past few years, Linux has been used mostly in Web servers, where it became popular because it’s inexpensive, stable, and easily customized. Most companies have multiple Web servers — sometimes dozens, sometimes even hundreds — linked up in server farms, and that has made the low cost of Linux even more attractive. If one of those servers goes down, you still have dozens of replacements standing by. That kind of redundancy is a lot harder to achieve with expensive Sun Solaris servers or IBM RS/6000 minicomputers.

    In the IT hierarchy, though, Web servers are an oddball niche — the domain of effete, trendy techies who wear tiny glasses and big, chunky shoes. For really serious computer systems — the ones companies use to run central business applications like database management and transaction processing — most companies have stuck with big, tough, brand-name Unix computers from Compaq, IBM, and Sun.

    That, too, is starting to change, however. Search site Google runs its entire operation on a gigantic farm of 10,000 highly customized Linux computers. reported last fall that it had cut its technology expenses 25 percent, from $71 million to $54 million, in large part by switching from Sun servers to Linux-based systems supplied by Hewlett-Packard. On Wall Street, Merrill Lynch and Credit Suisse First Boston have both started to use Linux throughout their operations, for such high-powered tasks as financial trading and order processing.

    Last month, Linux vendor Red Hat (which supplies the operating systems used by the above companies) announced a version of Linux tailored for use in high-end “enterprise” applications. “One of the problems we had in the past was we sort of had a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Paul Cormier, executive vice president for engineering at Red Hat. “We had one distribution aimed at everyone from the kid in the dorm all the way up to the enterprise customer.” Red Hat’s new Linux Advanced Server adds a number of features — such as reliability, scalability, and management tools — that corporations need to run big servers. For instance, the new operating system supports “clustering” (joining together two or more servers so they act as a single unit), which is essential for creating fail-safe systems. It also has enhancements under the hood that help process heavy computing and communications chores with greater ease.

    Red Hat worked closely with Oracle to make sure that this version of Linux meshed well with Oracle’s database and application servers, so it’s a good bet that this operating system will find a home among Oracle users. Red Hat’s Linux Advanced Server costs $800 or more per machine — significantly less than Solaris or Windows 2000. (Of course, you also have to buy the hardware that runs the operating system.) Red Hat continues to offer a cheaper, low-end version of Linux — and you can still download Linux and set it up yourself for free, if you want.

    eBay for the Enterprise

    If last decade’s IT managers found Linux funny, just imagine how they might have reacted to the notion of buying hardware on eBay — the land of Pez dispensers, Beanie Babies, and useless attic junk. But last quarter, eBay sold $650 million in high-tech products (everything from stereos to servers), and the fastest-growing segment within those sales was networking and telecommunications equipment. At any given moment, says Sergio Monsalve, general manager of eBay’s networking and telecom category, the auction site has about 25,000 such products on the block, including servers, storage systems, high-end Cisco routers, and the like.

    Some of these items are overstock that’s being sold by resellers or businesses liquidating their assets in the wake of bankruptcy. But several computer vendors — including Dell, IBM, and Sun — have started selling their products directly on eBay, often with warranties and support included. It’s a good way to get rid of overstock or last year’s models, Monsalve says, because eBay buyers are typically looking for bargains (not necessarily the latest and greatest) — even when they’re buying equipment for corporate networks.

    Bargain hunting can pay off. Online lender E-Loan managed to cut IT costs by 11 percent, partly by purchasing items through eBay, including a nearly new Sun E4500 server. The machine would have cost $60,000 new; E-Loan got it for $20,000. On a more personal note, I recently found a new IBM RS/6000 server on eBay for $3,500. Although that particular model was discontinued by IBM in 2000, comparable systems now cost $15,000 or more. At that price, I may buy two (once I clear out some garage space in which to put the things).

    Because warranties and support are important to most companies, Monsalve advises would-be purchasers to carefully read item descriptions for warranty details before placing bids. As with everything on eBay, the rule of caveat emptor applies.

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    Buying Industrial-Strength Tech on the Cheap

    Does Your Company Need a CTO?

    The economy may have slowed down, but that doesn’t mean the pace of technological change has abated. If anything, choices about technology are getting harder to make — you have a smaller budget to work with and more options for how to spend it. Upgrade your network infrastructure to gigabit Ethernet speeds or install a slower, wireless network? Centralize data on a storage area network or distribute it throughout the company on network-attached devices? Build brand-new Web applications or Webify your existing infrastructure using portal software?

    In many cases, such decisions can have far-reaching effects on your company’s competitiveness, cost structure, and bottom line. That’s why an increasing number of companies are hiring chief technical officers to keep an eye on the big picture. This week, more than 270 of them gathered in San Francisco at the CTO Forum, a conference sponsored by the technology industry weekly InfoWorld (where I was formerly an editor).

    Among the attendees, there was, not surprisingly, a lot of agreement about the strategic importance of having a CTO. (After all, who’s going to knock his or her own job?) But just what a CTO is supposed to do is a bit less clear-cut. Until the mid-1990s, the position existed almost exclusively at software companies, where this individual served as a bridge between the engineering department and the rest of the business. CTOs were part technology evangelist, part master product architect. But with the rise of the Internet, CTOs started appearing in businesses outside the software industry, because every company, whether it sold printers or pet food, needed technology to gain a foothold on the Web.

    These days even a startup will hire a CTO as part of its founding management team. That person designs the company’s network and server setup. Once everything is up and running, the company often brings in a chief information officer — someone with the slightly more humdrum responsibility of maintaining the system. That frees up the CTO to keep thinking big.

    “What companies are finding is that to remain competitive you really need to innovate on the technical front, and that’s the role of the CTO,” says Ari Kahn, CTO and co-founder of Fatwire, a content management software vendor. “Companies don’t necessarily want to stay in a mature market and slug it out on pure market share — they want to be able to move into new areas.”

    Someone who can see how small pieces fit into the grand scheme can also impose some order on the often-chaotic IT infrastructures of very large companies. “It’s easy for [technology vendors’] salespeople to get some of our employees highly excited about their particular technology,” says Tony Scott, CTO of General Motors (GM). “It’s my role to make sure that technology makes sense for GM as a whole, and not just for part of the company.”

    In GM’s case, the result of this focus on technology is a faster and nimbler company. For example, GM spent the past several years digitizing its auto-design process, cutting new cars’ time to market from five years to just 18 months — an initiative facilitated in part by Scott’s team. GM also outsources almost all of its IT needs, enabling the company to jump on new technologies quickly, without the inertia of a big internal IT organization.

    Other CTOs emphasize the more prosaic aspects of managing technology. “Operational discipline is absolutely key in making a CTO successful,” says Hossein Eslambolchi, CTO of AT&T (T) and president of AT&T Laboratories. Companies that do business online need secure, ultrareliable information systems and have very little tolerance for downtime. That means designing networks and selecting technology with an eye toward scalability, security, and durability. “If your PC fails, what do you do? You reboot it. But in a real, live [e-business] environment, you cannot reboot an IP router, because you would drop a thousand customers, and that’s just not acceptable,” Eslambolchi says.

    Not every company needs a CTO — and fewer than 10 percent of major companies currently have one, according to InfoWorld. If your business doesn’t rely heavily on technology, a CTO is a useless luxury. What’s more, many executives are naturally suspicious of the need for a pure visionary (especially one with highly subjective criteria for his or her own performance on the job). But if your company is consistently getting leapfrogged by more technically savvy competitors, you almost certainly need a CTO to help hone your competitive edge.

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    Does Your Company Need a CTO?