Agencies queue up for KM
Citizens gain ready access to info, dodge red tape
By Kim Ann Zimmermann
Government agencies are finding that knowledge management technologies are essential to staying in touch with the citizens they serve, and with one another.
An increasing number of people use the Web to conduct routine business, and expect government services to be available online. They want to perform such tasks as renewing a business permit or requesting a copy of a report without the hassle of going to town hall or becoming tangled in government bureaucracy.
In response, federal, state and even local government agencies are beginning to offer more services on the Internet to their constituents. In addition to communicating with the people they serve, government agencies are using the Internet and KM technology to interact with one another, and to share documents and ideas online.
But because implementing an enterprisewide, Web-based system is a daunting task, government users are heeding the experience of their brethren in private industry by adopting some of the best practices of corporate information managers. And many government agencies are using KM technology for the same reasons it is employed in the private sector. They want to collaborate and track changes to documents. But instead of revising engineering documents, for example, they're charting changes to a piece of legislation or the latest tax codes. In government, as in private industry, it is common for many people to work on a project simultaneously, so the advantages of workflow processing are essential to optimize efficiency.
One of the most recent applications in government for KM systems is customer relationship management, according to industry observers. The ability to have customer service representatives armed with knowledge, such as the latest version of a form or the most up-to-date regulations, when a taxpayer calls is key to making the most of huge databases of information.
The linchpin to the whole KM movement in government is the Web. State, federal and local governments are doing the work of the people, and they—unlike private firms—are required to make information available to the public.
But sharing knowledge is not limited to making information readily available to a constituency. Many government agencies are capitalizing on the collaborative features of Web-based KM systems so they can exchange documents and ideas with their counterparts across the country.
For instance, state highway commissions face many of the same problems and issues. Those agencies are beginning to share specifications for particular road designs, request for bid documents, accident impact studies and other essential information. After all, the agencies aren't in competition with one another so it makes sense to find a way to share best practices for dealing with common concerns.
"Internal communication is one of the emerging areas in government applications," says Mark Youman, principal, American Management Systems. "Government agencies are doing more complex business-to-business applications. We're seeing a lot of knowledge flow issues being addressed."
With the Federal Highway Administration acting as a knowledge broker, state highway agencies are becoming more efficient by learning from one another, Youman says. AMS is one of the technologies the FHWA is using to enable data sharing among state representatives and experts in the field.
"What we're really focused on is building communities and pulling people together who have common interests," says Mike Burk, chief knowledge officer for the Federal Highway Administration.
A current example involves sharing information about rumble strips, which are warning devices designed to alert a driver if the car is veering off the road.
"We had several states involved, all willing to share their data surrounding rumble strips, including findings and results as to their impact on crashes,” Burk says. “They also shared information as to what these strips could look like--there are several designs, as well as sample documents as to how to spec the rumble strips in a request for proposal.”
With Web-based KM technology, agencies can tap into the information when they need it. "The information is always there,” Burk says. “They don't have to wait for the next committee meeting six months from now to find out how their counterparts in other states have dealt with a particular situation."
The technology will also make it easier to keep tabs on the various bits of information collected over the years--even after employees leave.
As Burk points out, "There are so many instances when someone is looking for information, and you might say, ‘Didn't they do something similar in Nebraska? Oh, but that was Joe's job, and he retired and they cleared out his desk.’ "
Providing a searchable database was the impetus for a KM project at the Farm Service Agency at the U.S. Deprtment of Agriculture U.S. The FSA provides support to farmers, offering emergency loans, conservation and environmental programs as well as disaster assistance and other services.
"The laws and regulations of the farm program change constantly, and we needed a searchable online archive of agricultural reference manuals," says Susan Karr, information management and processing division chief for the FSA, based in Kansas City, MO, with 2,500 offices nationwide.
The system from Convera —a company created this year from a merger between Excalibur Technologies and Intel's Interactive Media Services--enables approximately 18,000 FSA employees to more quickly and effectively gather data on the agency’s policies and procedures, and fulfill research requests from farmers across the country. Those policies and procedures encompass more than 200 handbooks and manuals.
"Each time we had a change, 2,500 manuals had to be printed so that each office provided consistent information," Karr says.
The FSA may eventually open up the database to farmers so they can perform their own searches to find the documents relevant to their needs, she adds.
Government KM applications are not limited to text. Sandia National Laboratories, operated by Sandia Corp. for the United States Department of Energy, has announced it will use Convera's technology to archive video taken during nuclear weapon disaster training exercises.
"When dealing with the recovery and disarmament of nuclear weapons, 100% accuracy is critical," says Mike Krawczyk, software engineer for the department's accident response group. "(Convera's technology) allows us to import the transcription taken from the training videos and synchronize those words with video time codes, which allows us to find exactly what we need with the speed and accuracy sensitive situations demand."
While synchronized video and text are probably beyond the immediate needs of local governments, they are also prime candidates for KM systems.
You can fight city hall
City officials say the new system from MetaStorm, called e-work, will make it easier for them to respond to citizen complaints and questions. The workflow solution is expected to expedite processing of communitywide reports from citizens regarding everything from vandalism of public property to missed garbage pickups. The initial implementation will link hundreds of city workers via Bakersfield’s intranet so that employees can route inquiries to the appropriate departments in real time and track all activity related to them.
“One of the major benefits is the system’s ability to automate many of our paper-intensive processes and link the status of a given inquiry via the Web to the city’s various databases,” says Bob Trammell, MIS director for the city. “This alone will accelerate response time significantly as we strive to be as responsive as possible to our constituents. In addition, the city’s agencies will be able to process internal paperwork, such as interdepartment budget transfers and employee requests for vacation, resulting in a much more streamlined city government.”
The city is also in the process of integrating an e-work application with the fire department’s record and maintenance system. For example, e-work will be able to record computerized defibrillator activity. Defibrillators are often used by rescue workers when responding to 911 calls in which life-saving measures are necessary. The software will capture such information as machine voltage and patient blood pressure, so that the data is accessible via state databases for historical analysis.