Application integration, the IT task known as silo-busting, looms as an intimidating challenge for many state and local agencies. The North Carolina Secretary of State’s office met that challenge and tore down the walls that isolate applications, spurring more than a dozen other states to replicate its efforts.
Across the country, applications built to handle individual government tasks have proliferated, creating a tangle of systems that often were designed with no concern for how well they work together. Service to constituents suffers as applications churn out conflicting data. Time and resources wither away as agencies reconcile information and train staff on several different tools. Separate stove-piped applications ensnare agencies in a trap that Jim McManus, application development manager at the North Carolina Secretary of State, knows all too well.
“That was our old mentality,” McManus says. “Different requirements were used to build our stove-piped systems, pretty much without consideration for any existing systems. If you needed a new system, you’d just start from scratch.”
McManus’ agency is charged with providing accurate and timely public access to business-related registered documents, such as documents of incorporation and liens. Often, specialized applications in the office’s old IT architecture processed only specific types of documents. McManus’ office faced the challenge of separately managing seven or eight individually developed applications that didn’t work well together. Sometimes, even modules within applications didn’t communicate well with one another, he says.
The old paper-based process in North Carolina usually required citizens to file documents in person or hire a proxy. With only one Secretary of State office in Raleigh, the arrangement inadvertently provided an advantage to businesses near the capital.
In 1999, McManus and his team laid the groundwork for the Secretary of State Knowledge Base (SOSKB), a centralized processing system built around records pertaining to individuals or businesses. The product was developed by Office Automation Solutions, Raleigh, North Carolina, in conjunction with the North Carolina Secretary of State.
Beneath each entity’s profile, the system tracks documents—whether filed in person or via a Web site—that are associated with that entity. A Web server makes the documents available online.
SOSKB runs on a Microsoft SQL Server 2000 database and uses a Microsoft Web server. The Secretary of State’s office built code for SOSKB in a Microsoft Visual Basic development environment.
SOSKB’s core is i-Vault, a proprietary system built by the North Carolina Secretary of State’s office that manages and retrieves tagged image file format (TIFF) images of documents. It also converts them to Adobe portable document file (PDF) format when they’re viewed.
An imaging component of SOSKB can receive and file new documents. When businesses or individuals pay the office for registrations such as incorporations, a cash-management component of SOSKB takes scanned checks and records accounting information.
As the Secretary of State’s office migrated application functions to SOSKB, it eliminated the redundant siloed applications. When the office takes on responsibility for new tasks, the Secretary of State’s IT group builds management of those tasks into SOSKB.
Because functions pertaining to different documents are managed centrally in SOSKB, no conflict exists between separately developed applications. SOSKB also eliminates the data discrepancies that once arose from application to application.
“We needed to be able to take a new function and plug it into this model,” McManus says. “It worked.”
North Carolina is not alone in wrestling with inefficient siloed applications. Agencies on all levels suffer from a lack of standard technologies, largely because most commercial software is tailored for private sector enterprises, and no government-specific equivalent is available, says Dan Sholler, vice president of technology research services at IT research firm META Group in Stamford, Conn.
Government IT departments also lack a culture of centralization, which is prevalent in commercial enterprises. Instead, many agencies implement a variety of software tools and strategies to streamline their applications.
Missouri took a page from North Carolina’s book. Trish Vincent, deputy secretary for business services for Missouri Secretary of State Matt Blunt, met North Carolina’s McManus at a 2000 meeting of the International Association of Commercial Administrators (IACA) in San Antonio. Impressed with what SOSKB accomplished for North Carolina, and believing that the system met Blunt’s goals to make her division’s services more accessible to the public, Vincent decided to put the system to work in her state.
Missouri licensed the core SOSKB code from North Carolina and migrated Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), corporation and notary applications to the system. Missouri redeveloped the online recording of the liens portion of its UCC application in SOSKB. The state also built an application that handles requests from individuals who want to be notaries and an online filing application for corporate annual reports. Centralizing those applications has streamlined operations in Missouri and provided a single place from which to monitor workflows.
“Before, we were on an old mainframe system,” Vincent says. The notary application was on a standalone server-based system, and “it had a lot of problems,” she says.
The technology changes, including application consolidation through SOSKB, reduced the agency’s staff by 20 percent since 2001, Vincent reports.
Other secretaries of state soon followed Missouri’s lead. At a 2001 IACA meeting, McManus gave a presentation on North Carolina’s application integration work, and interest in SOSKB’s code took off. Fourteen states and jurisdictions now license SOSKB free from North Carolina. States pay fees to an IT services firm in Raleigh that handles implementation work, McManus explains.
“They needed to get rid of their monolithic applications,” he says. “Plus, a lot of the states had old systems that were ineffective. They needed to do something, but how do they do it? Do they come up with $6 million or $7 million? No, they come up with $600,000 or $700,000.”
The arduous job of breaking down silos and sharing information requires four “categories of agreement,” META Group’s Sholler advises. First is the agreement on the technology that will provide a basis for integration. Next is syntax, the formatting of specific fields of data.
The third category, semantics, deals with data field definitions, such as whether a transaction figure includes sales taxes. The last category, process, delineates how information will be used by applications. The process category is particularly important in the government sector, because of privacy implications inherent in some types of data.
Having started in the private sector, the consolidation wave—and the silo-busting activity that accompanies it—is becoming increasingly common in government, Sholler says.
It often begins as it did in North Carolina: with an idea among a handful of IT professionals. But throughout its consolidation efforts, McManus says his office was focused on a single goal: It wanted technology that would serve its constituency more accurately, fairly and efficiently.
“We’re still true to our commission, which is to provide the registration, storage and retrieval of documents,” McManus says. “But we have revolutionized the delivery system.”
Other states strive to duplicate the North Carolina Secretary of State’s silo-busting success and the state’s offer of free licensing of its Secretary of State Knowledge Base system code. State agencies that worked with Office Automation Solutions, which helped North Carolina develop SOSKB to replace some of its siloed applications, include:
• Alaska — Securities, Corporation Registry, Trademark Registry, Service of Process (SOP)
• Georgia — Corporation Registry
• Indiana — Finalizing Contracts for Securities
• Missouri — Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), Corporation Registry
• Mississippi — Uniform Commercial Code (UCC), Corporate Registry
• New Hampshire — UCC, Corporation Registry, Vital Records, Trademark Registry
• New Mexico — UCC, Trademark Registry, Notaries, Limited Partnership, Agricultural Liens, SOP, Political Finance Reporting
• Ohio — UCC, Extensible Markup Language Online Filing
Source: Office Automation Solutions
Although it’s bone dry, Denver Water’s new reservoir is all about water. The municipal body, which treats and delivers water to 250,000 residents and has billing, collection and customer service responsibilities, is creating an integrated database with information on expenditures, revenue and consumption. The main goal is to create a data warehouse that will enable Denver Water to better understand its operations and improve service to citizens seeking information on their water consumption.
When work began in 2000, Denver Water was struggling with data that often conflicted from one system to another, including billing applications, meter systems and other technologies used by the organization’s 1,200 employees. The budgeting department might acquire information from accounting and adjust it before entering it into its own applications. The result was theoretically identical data that in practice varied from report to report and system to system.
“In a lot of cases, if you said, ‘water consumption’ at Denver Water, there might be four or five different definitions,” says Bob Tinglestad, the agency’s IT manager of enterprise business intelligence. Today, such problems are steadily declining.
Denver Water built a data warehouse and specialized data marts that are growing rapidly. Data-mart information that feeds financial applications has reached 6 million individual transaction records and is increasing by 1.5 million transactions per year. On the billing and water consumption side, Denver Water has centrally stored 20 million individual records.
The organization started by integrating information from billing and meter systems, as discrepancies in those applications caused the most difficulty for Denver Water and touched the most people across the agency. “Everyone at Denver Water is interested in the revenue and the water consumption data,” Tinglestad says. “Every division has some interest in those two things, so we chose them first.”
Now Denver Water can query those sets of data and maintain their consistency. Because agency managers spend less time reconciling data, their budgetary projections are based on more current information. Denver Water hopes that an improved budgetary regimen will help managers control spending. The resulting savings will let the agency cut costs or invest in capital projects.
Denver Water is not alone in benefiting from the integration work. Last year, the agency made it possible for individual citizens to learn about their water consumption through Denver Water’s Web site.
Each success becomes the foundation on which to build new services. The agency hopes its centralized data store will enable customers to handle billing tasks and track their water consumption history and account balances online. From there, online service requests could follow, say Denver Water officials.
Breaking down silo walls has created new opportunities at Denver Water.