Friday, September 19, 2014

Designing the sharing state - an interview with Steve Schmid of the Open Technology Foundation

This is the fourth in a series of interviews I'm doing as part of Delib Australia's media partnership with CeBIT in support of GovInnovate. I'll also be livetweeting and blogging the conference on 25-27 November.

View other posts in this series.

With thousands of governments at local, state and national level around the world that need many of the same technological systems to govern effectively, why do governments often believe they must develop new enterprise systems and their related assets (ie guidelines, policies, methods and other shareable ICT assets) from scratch?

This question triggered the creation of one of Australia’s most interesting and innovative organisations, the Open Technology Foundation.

Founded in 2011 with the support of the South Australian government and Carnegie Mellon University Australia, the Open Technology Foundation (or OTF), has the mission to help facilitate technology sharing at all levels of government across Australia and New Zealand.

The OTF’s leader, Stephen Schmid, is passionate about the work his organisation is doing.

“All governments perform the same basic functions but historically we have built our own solutions to meet a need. This tide is changing."

He said, “a very cost effective method of provisioning services is to investigate and potentially reuse what other governments have done when faced with the same challenge – sharing rather than reinventing."

Steve isn’t a newcomer to this vision for government.

After working for Microsoft in Redmond, Worldcom in Colorado Springs and IBM, Steve’s last role in South Australian Government was as Director of the state government’s ICT division, which is responsible for whole-of-government voice and data systems.

“A single data network and voice network servicing all government departments provides significant efficiencies”, Steve says, “Other states could leverage this model as they explore opportunities for converged technologies.”

This work led Steve to the view there was a strong need for a sharing program to support connected governments, and through his role at the OTF he’s working to build a bridge for cooperation between jurisdictions.

The work has already had some significant successes.

“We work cooperatively to facilitate sharing between public administrations across Australia and New Zealand. The OTF is also working on a range of projects with Vietnam and implementing a global knowledge-sharing platform for interoperable technology solutions”

The road has, at times, been bumpy. Steve says that “one federal agency asked us ‘who gave you approval to represent Australia”.

He told me that he doesn’t see the OTF as representing Australia, “we represent our members, jurisdictions who wish to participate in a sharing program with other jurisdictions. We create our own mandate. And everything the OTF does is open to every jurisdiction, with a focus on tangible outcomes.”

Sharing technology resources isn’t simply a nice idea. Steve believes there are significant opportunities to reduce the cost of provisioning public services while improving service delivery, “we’re here for Australian & New Zealand governments to leverage the investments of other jurisdictions and reuse them – in software, materials and other services. We also help share our [AU & NZ] knowledge with other countries, especially in the Asia Pacific region.”

Steve is not the only one who believes these outcomes are worthwhile.

A number of key Australian agencies and governments are represented on the OTF’s governing council. This includes Defense, the Bureau of Meteorology, the New Zealand Government and Australian state governments such as NSW, Queensland and South Australia.

Steve says that there’s also some urgency about the work. Europe is moving ahead with interoperability solutions and technology sharing at a great rate, and the US is moving forward with NIEM, the National Information Exchange Model.

He says that “Australia is still at the starting line, and we can’t afford to be there much longer.”

Steve also discussed four projects the OTF is working on for delivery in the next twelve months.

“Our first project is about modern design for a sustainable government”.

Steve says the aim of this project was to provide a set of principles for developing portable government platforms, including associated guidelines and procurement clauses.

“There was an interoperability approach developed by Australian government back in 2006, but things have progressed since then.”

The OTF aims to deliver an outcome that allows platforms to be portable not only in Australia and New Zealand, but globally.

“European Commission have expressed interest in being involved and we will potentially also have the UN involved, linking into all major regional governments at a global level.”

If the project is successful it will make it far easier for agencies to add standard principles into their procurement clauses. For Australian technology companies this opens a door to global business, providing clarity on how they provide a specific service.

Steve says that they hope to turn the project over to a standards body at a future stage to ensure its sustainability and broader uptake.

The OTF’s second project is related to managing shared guidelines for internal ICT management and for managing vendors. He believes this project will assist both governments and vendors.

“Having vendors spend additional money to meet the separate requirements for each jurisdiction adds significantly to the cost of software to government and the development costs of vendors.”

Steve says that common shared guidelines for many of our technology needs that can be used as a baseline for our public administrations would remove this extra cost.

The project is being led by the NSW government with the initial goal of developing a set of guidelines for cloud that can be shared and reused across jurisdictions.

OTF involves all of its participating jurisdictions in the development process, and hopes to use it as a model for further shared guidelines.

The third project involves investigating whether the European Commission’s eProcurement platform can be reused by Australian governments.

“The EC’s platform was developed to be an end-to-end eProcurement platform for European countries and was released under an open source license. We’re evaluating modules of the platform with Australian state governments to test whether it meets their needs. So far we’ve found it just works, out of the box”

Steve says that the platform, Open e-PRIOR, has been developed to international standards that suite Australian governments and is a good example of how systems developed elsewhere in the world can be reused by local jurisdictions.

“We’ve found that most governments are willing to share most of their investment in ICT with other governments, beyond their secure systems. The primary barriers to sharing are the cultural ones and appropriate licensing.”

Finally, Steve says the OTF is working on building a platform for managing shared enterprise platforms.

“Our member governments feel there is no place for them currently to place their shared enterprise platforms for reuse by other governments.”

Steve says this isn’t simply a Forge for code sharing, but a robust system that incorporates management and support to provide the quality control and support necessary for large government system.

The development of this ITIL-based platform is being led by the Queensland government, with the support of other OTF members. If successful it could revolutionise how Australian governments share their shareable platforms.

Steve believes these projects are some of the foundation stones for building a technology-sharing environment for Australian and New Zealand governments, and go far beyond earlier government attempts at interoperability.

If successful Steve believes they will help herald in an age of more connected and responsive government, dramatically cutting the cost and need for agencies to develop their own new systems.

It’s a big goal but a worthy one.

“Gaining the required levels of participation to make this sharing cooperation a real success story is challenging, but with the continued support of our member governments and networks, we will all benefit in the long term.”

You’ll be able to hear more from Steve at GovInnovate on 25-27 November in Canberra.

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