Jul 11 2013

5 Steps to Intergovernmental IT Collaboration

State leaders share advice for working beyond borders.

Working together across geographic and bureaucratic boundaries should come naturally to governments, says Ron Baldwin, CIO for the state of Montana, which has forged multiple collaborative agreements with other states in the past year.

"We try to operate as successful businesses operate, providing the best service for the best price — in our case, the fewest tax dollars," Baldwin says. "But we have an opportunity to collaborate and share our capabilities that businesses don't have because we don't compete with each other."

While states and localities often cherish their uniqueness, governments at all levels can benefit from collaborating to meet common needs and goals, says Sean McSpaden, deputy CIO for the state of Oregon. "The 50 states all have similar functions, as do other levels of government," he notes. "We're going to talk to each other and find ways to work together, or we're going to waste time and taxpayers' money."

Intergovernmental collaboration holds the promise of cost reductions and increased efficiency, but working together isn't easy. Here, IT leaders offer advice about forging successful interstate collaborations.

1. Pick partners carefully.

Before signing any agreements, conduct thorough due diligence. Make sure that each jurisdiction's laws and policies affecting the proposed collaboration are compatible. A good personal relationship with officials in the partnering organization is advantageous too, Baldwin notes, adding, "Ask your peers, 'How can we help each other? Where do we have common needs or complementary resources?'"

Montana has an emergency tax collection agreement with Idaho, a disaster recovery collocation agreement with Oregon and collaborates with that state, Colorado and Utah to share GIS information. "As you think about the agreement, spell out how you're actually going to do that, and see if the collaboration makes sense," Baldwin says.

2. Create detailed governance policies.

When the states of Wyoming, Colorado, Arizona and North Dakota formed the WyCAN consortium to collaborate on a cloud-based unemployment insurance tax and benefits system, a crucial initial step was developing the governance structure, says Colorado Chief Technology Officer Sherri Hammons, who sits on WyCAN's executive and steering committees. Among many other items, the WyCAN governance policy creates steering and executive committees and defines their functions; stipulates which issues can be decided by the vote of a three-state majority and which must be unanimous; and even provides an exit strategy for states, should they want to leave the consortium.

"Having the governance plan from the start helped us make the big decisions that have to be made up front in any IT project," says Hammons.

3. Be transparent to partners and the public.

A key ingredient to the success of inter­governmental collaboration is trust among the partners and with the public, says Oregon's McSpaden. He plays a lead role in the state's Managed Marketplace, a multijurisdictional partnership that provides audio, video and web conferencing services to localities; and the National Information Sharing Consortium, whose members focus on facilitating information transfer and tool sharing for emergency preparedness. In order to build that trust, collaborators must commit to open, regular communication and full transparency, McSpaden says.While different partnerships may operate with diverse communication models, the aim of creating a free flow of information is the same.

"When you form a partnership, people in other jurisdictions are daring to believe that you are as concerned with their interests as your own," says McSpaden. "The only way to make them believe that's true is to make sure there are mechanisms for you to listen to them and for them to hear you — and for the public to be able to hear it all."

4. Meet common needs, but be flexible.

States do many similar things, but significant differences exist, says Ray Brand, who as enterprise systems architect for the state of Wyoming works on the WyCAN Consortium. WyCAN's list of requirements exceeds 2,500 items, and the work of creating them helped members of the partnership understand the concerns of other states, he says. After developing the requirements, WyCAN adopted a modular approach to the shared unemployment tax and benefits system, with 70 to 80 percent of the coding identical for all states and theremainder customized for unique needs.

"The requirements list became the foundation of how all the states could work with each other," says Brand. "We have a core design, but all the states' requirements are covered by modules compatible with the common code base."

5. Partner from strength.

While need will always drive collaboration, governments should also be alert to opportunities to share their strengths, says Lynne Pizzini, chief information security officer for Montana. For example, after completing a new, state-of-the-art data center in Helena and finding itself with extra capacity and unused raised floor space, Montana struck an agreement with Oregon in which each state provides the other with a disaster recovery site.

Standards Pave the Way

Federal regulations and standards may complicate the lives of state officials in part, but they also pave the way for collaboration among state government, says Stuart Fuller, CIO for the Montana Department of Public Health and Human Services. Technology integration issues are minimized when states have to meet the same criteria for security standards and operational practices.

"Our disaster recovery agreement with Oregon worked so well because we both followed federal standards like the National Institute of Standards and Technology security guidelines," says Fuller, who previously worked as Montana's chief technology officer. "That sort of thing makes it a lot easier for states to collaborate because we know our technologies are compatible."