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What Makes Government Different?

When you say government, that's pretty vague. There are thousands of agencies, commands, bureaucracies, departments ... it's somewhat akin to the myth of the "European market." There is no such thing. There are, however, very active buying sectors in Germany, which are distinct from buying sectors in France. The UK stands alone, and the Scandinavian countries, while often lumped together, are also quite differentiated by habit, language, regulation and culture.

So in singling out something as large as "the government market," we're bound to uncover both similarities AND contrasts to the commercial space.

For example, here's something you won't usually hear in the commercial market: "We're looking at ‘network-centric warfare'," says Sameer Kalbag, director of product management for Convera. Warfare—network-centric or any other kind—just doesn't come up that often in my typical day. "The Defense Department is moving to a whole new paradigm for how they fight wars. In the old days—during the Cold War—developing strategies could take decades. By the time there was an incident, your plans could be completely obsolete."

I think we're painfully familiar with that concept. But why is a software company talking about it to me, a technology writer with very little warfare experience? "You need to be aware that information is the key, and that's an IT problem."

How do you answer the question, when a soldier asks: "What's over that hill?" You can't spend a decade on that. But part of the answer will come from GIS systems, part of it from unmanned drones, part of it will come from other sources such as intelligence and other arms of the armed forces or local presences.

The point being: government is different. "That's one of the things that makes the government unique," says Sameer. "You don't just throw a search engine into a plane, and find stuff. But the key components of searching—matching information needs to resources—can be used in a variety of use cases." With the help of systems integrators in the government space, Convera is converting search components into brand-new solutions that haven't been thought of much before.

But as "different" as government can be, it can also be very familiar. "The government is moving toward ‘enterprise architectures,'" says Cheryl McKinnon, product manager for government solutions for Hummingbird, Ltd. "They are seeking areas where cost efficiencies can be gained through bulk purchases," she says. Enterprise? Cost efficiencies? Them's business words. "Yes, it's a big shift for government," Cheryl agrees. "The public sector is more likely to develop information silos, where senior managers try to control the systems and processes and create fiefdoms for themselves," she says. The public sector has been slow to recognize and address this problem, but—taking a page from the commercial playbook—government agencies are beginning to recognize the value of consolidating (and standardizing on) single vendors to cut the costs of systems (such as e-mail or document management) and also the costs of hardware. Where the commercial world could take a lesson or two from government is in another familiar territory (to those of you who read these KMWorld white papers regularly): regulation. "Government is on the forefront of regulatory compliance," Cheryl explains, "because they have had compliance mandates for decades." Within the commercial space, Cheryl contends, the culture of compliance is still fairly new, but it's old hat for the public sector. "It varies by jurisdiction," she says. "Government agencies may not always be further in terms of best practices. But the culture of awareness has been there for much longer.

"The private sector could have learned a lot from government experience," says Cheryl. "What brought down Oliver North (in 1987) were his e-mails." Even today, almost two decades later, many corporations are only beginning to understand the sensitivity and discoverability of electronic records.

Policy Rules

On November 18, 2004, the Federal CTO Summit met in Washington, DC. The head of Defense Information Systems, the CTO of the Department of Homeland Security and the CTO of the Justice Department (among others) were there to figure out how to satisfy a simple presidential executive order: "You guys need to share."

About four months prior to the summit, President Bush had issued Executive Order 13356—"Strengthening the Sharing of Terrorism Information To Protect Americans." This short (four-page) document has some form of the word "share" in it 20 times. At the reportedly very frank Federal CTO Summit in November, the attendees had one predominant take-away item: ask commercial software developers to help us satisfy the policy mandate contained in 13356.

"You can have the most amazing technology in the world," says Gary Ward, VP of sales for X1 Technologies, "but if there is not a policy imperative driving the adoption, it's going to be difficult sledding in the public sector." But when a technology DOES line up with policy, look out: that's when you see things like search and information extraction and KM take off in the government sector.

X1, for one, takes the government's technology imperatives one step beyond what EO 13356 asks for. The order asks for information sharing, but that's only part of the job. "We're having to deal with much larger volumes of information, inside and outside of government," adds Josh Jacobs, X1's president. But just searching isn't enough, says Josh. "The government agency worker needs to extract meaning from the information." "The point of contact is the end user," adds Gary. "There are tons of studies showing that knowledge workers waste time looking for things. That's one problem. But once you find it...what do you do with it? The ‘post-search action' is equally important."

The concept of tools that facilitate the natural workflow already in place is nothing new to the readers of these white papers. X1, Convera and Hummingbird each has a different way to say it, but the message is the same: Knowledge workers, no matter who they work for, need to handle vastly greater amounts of information, more quickly, AND they must derive some value from the experience. It's a tall order.

In government, the driving impetus is from public policy and budget pressure. In the private sector, the driving impetus is business performance and...budget pressure. So as you read the articles within this issue of the KMWorld White Paper series, think not only of "what makes government different," (as I suggested in the title) but what makes government information management very much the same.


Andy Moore has held senior editorial and publishing positions for more than 25 years. As a technology writer and editor, Moore speaks with dozens of senior executives and industry experts each month. In his role as Editorial Director for the Specialty Publishing Group, Moore oversees the contributions to the series as well as conducting market research for future topics of interest for the series.

Moore is based in Camden, Maine, and can be reached at andy_moore@verizon.net

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