10 hot public sector IT trends for 2007

Governments in Canada have identified at least 10 priorities for a 2007 information and technology to-do list that aims to push operational efficiency, consolidate infrastructure resources, and cut maintenance costs.

At the federal level, the move to shared services is focused on building enterprise architecture, where technologies like service-oriented architecture (SOA) and virtualization come into play. Three other hot areas of interest are identity authentication and authorization, voice over IP (VoIP) and converged networks, and (of course) information management.

Service-oriented architecture

Many of the largest departments in particular find themselves in the position of managing a significant number of legacy systems, with no coherent corporate architecture, says Michael Turner, principal consultant for e-Government Strategies.

Although the general trend is towards SOA, there is no specific prohibition against other architectural approaches, says Turner.

At the CIO Branch of Treasury Board Secretariat (TBS), for example, there has been agreement on the overall architecture for the common desktop services that Public Works and Government Services Canada (PWGSC) will be proposing as one of the first of a new family of shared services.

“TBS has issued no specific technical direction to departments beyond their already stated architectural principles, other than favouring SOA as a general approach,” says Turner.

The shape of the first of these new shared services can be seen in the recently announced partnership between the Department of National Defence (DND) and the IT Services Branch of PWGSC, he adds.

Paul Gallant of the DND’s Information Management Service Transformation office clarifies the partnership as follows: “The objective of the Memorandum of Understanding between DND and PWGSC is to pursue mutual interests in the development and implementation of selected IT Shared Services.

“DND/CF (Canadian Forces) and PWGSC will jointly explore selected IT services that would potentially lead to Enterprise IT solutions, responsive to the needs of DND/CF. These shared services would potentially be offered government-wide by PWGSC.”

Network convergence

According to Turner, Service Canada is also partnering with PWGSC for a new converged enterprise IP network service that will likely be MPLS-based (multi-protocol label switching).

Currently a request for information is out on the street, with comments required early next month before an RFP is issued, says Turner. The goal is an omnibus contract that can then also be used to replace existing WAN (wide-area network) services for other departments, as and when required.

“If more widely adopted than just for Service Canada, the new IP network could also become the next-generation connection between departments and between government and the outside public Internet,” says Turner.

The new MPLS-IP network may also be used to replace the network portion of the federal government’s Secure Channel service, which has already been in place several years.

The RFP is expected to include provisions for modernization of call centre systems in Service Canada and potentially other departments.Voice over IP

The federal government is also showing increased interest in moving to IP voice systems, running on the departmental LAN (local-area network) and WAN structure.

Turner expects that Service Canada’s RFP for converged network services will also include provision for implementation of VoIP-based telephony within that department once the other network and call centre improvements have been completed.

“The same service could potentially then be extended to other interested departments through this contract vehicle,” he says.

At the same time, PWGSC is working on a new RFI to begin the transition to IP technology from existing Centrex phone systems, for those departments willing and able to go that route, over the next couple of years.

“Of course, there will still be some specialized organizations, such as Foreign Affairs & International Trade, which may opt for their own procurement process to meet their specialized requirements,” Turner says.

But some organizations, especially those with significant investments in traditional PBX telephone technology have difficulty justifying the expense and operational disruption associated with a migration to pure VoIP telephone systems.

“Many of us have installed VoIP solutions in newer or smaller locations, but haven’t yet replaced or converted our main systems,” notes Roy Wiseman, CIO and director of I&T services for the Regional Municipality of Peel, Ont.

“We all recognize that we will need to do so within the next few years, but we are trying to figure out how to do it.”

Wiseman says migrating to VoIP with an existing telephone vendor may be the least disruptive but organizations have to consider whether their current vendors have the right VoIP products for the long term.

Identity authentication and authorization

Identity management will be critical to the maturing of online services offered by both the public and private sectors in the coming year and beyond, predicts Rose Langhout, corporate chief strategist for Ontario’s Ministry of Government Services.

Significant costs are associated with the proliferation of usernames and passwords — and the inevitable resetting of those many long-forgotten passwords, she notes.

Users want simple, easy access to services and are often frustrated by multiple sign-on requirements. More sophisticated authentication services can achieve a higher level of trust but carry additional costs and administrative overhead for the user.

However, surveys routinely identify privacy and security as critical prerequisites for citizen participation in online services, says Langhout.

Monolithic ID authentication systems conjure up “Big Brother” concerns as well as more immediate concerns about the security of these critical data stores when identity theft is so frequently in the news, she adds.

“With a more sophisticated understanding of how to segregate and manage this data,” says Langhout, “comes the ability to provide an enhanced, more seamless customer experience within a privacy-appropriate context.”

Information management

Network storage systems are increasingly becoming “electronic landfill” in which the 10 per cent of useful information (at best) is buried in the 90 per cent that is pure junk, says Peel Region CIO Wiseman.

By junk, he means the inexplicable excess of such things as the same file being stored hundreds of times; files and entire directories that no one owns or even knows is there; useless information being backed up nightly or weekly and taking more time than is available in backup windows while slowing down searches for valuable information.

“Most of us are experiencing 50 per cent or more annual growth in storage requirements,” says Wiseman. “While storage costs are continuing to decline on a per terabyte basis, accumulating information at this rate is not sustainable.”

Information can be a powerful tool for service delivery, but one that can also trigger strong reactions when inappropriately managed, adds Langhout.

For example, service providers in the public and private sectors are looking for the “sweet spot” where information about the customer allows the service provider to alert them to products, services or special offers that are of particular interest and then enable them to easily self-select those options.

The trick will be to make the tools more sophisticated without raising security or spam control issues, says Langhout. Giving users control of the parameters for outreach and allowing them to customize their views will be critical.

Information must also be packaged in a user-friendly manner — accessible through a variety of increasingly mobile computing technologies.

“The challenge will be to be precise about the information that will be most useful to the customer, and resist the urge to add additional messages,” she says.

Wireless, mobile workers

With the office environment virtually saturated with computers and other devices, the next frontier is our mobile and outside workers, says Wiseman.