States to Spur E-Gov Projects By Sharing Software Components

State chief information officers are looking to accelerate the pace at which they move government services online through a new program that will enable states to share software components of successful e-government projects.

The CIOs hope by August to sign a contract establishing a central repository, called the National Software Component Exchange, that would be operated by ComponentSource Inc. of Kennesaw, Ga. The company plans to charge each state a fee of $1,750 to participate, said Chris Dixon, digital government coordinator for the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, an organization representing state CIOs.

The concept of component sharing is not new, but previous attempts have met with limited success, said government and industry officials. Also, some in the information technology industry worry that proprietary software and applications will not be protected.

Georgia CIO Larry Singer, who is leading the initiative, said the new program potentially could reduce cost, risk and the amount of time required to bring software to market, and allow states to share best practices.

Component-based development ultimately "could result in hundreds of millions of dollars a year saved [by states] throughout the country," he said.

At the technical level, a component is a relatively simple set of instructions provided in computer code that supports a particular process. A large information system is composed of many different components to support various functions and requirements. Components that could be shared among the states might include software for business permits and professional licenses, motor vehicle services and eligibility for social services.

"The benefit of the component approach is that it gives the client flexibility as to how it implements systems," said Mike Titmus, vice president and chief operating officer for state and local solutions at American Management Systems Inc., Fairfax, Va.

"Anything that states can do to reduce costs is a worthwhile endeavor," said Milford Sprecher, business development manager for SAP Public Sector and Education Inc., Newtown Square, Pa., and a member of NASCIO's corporate leadership council.

A software exchange would give smaller technology companies who specialize in manufacturing components a chance to enter or increase their sales in the state market, Singer said. He noted that many of these companies believe they have limited or no access to the state and local market because they can't afford the bond necessary to cover the risks of multimillion-dollar development projects.

"This is not just about swapping state to state, but [about] providing an exchange that gives vendors a channel to state governments," he said.

Systems integrators are not likely to see a dramatic drop in existing or new business because of the initiative, said government and industry officials.

Although companies dealing with the state and local market may notice some lost opportunities here and there, the effect on their businesses as a whole won't be that profound, Sprecher said.

The work of systems integrators "is more about gluing together components than it is creating big chunks of code," said Matt Chambers, general manager for administrative and process management at Electronic Data Systems Corp., Plano, Texas.

Still, some members of the NASCIO corporate leadership council have voiced their concern over whether proprietary software would be shared, Singer said.

Steve Holdridge, director of business development for state and local consulting at Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif., said there is "no issue" with states sharing components they have developed themselves, but his company is concerned over the reuse and sharing of components developed by vendors for states.

"We don't want to restrict what a customer is doing regarding selling to other agencies, but we also want the right to reuse it for other projects," Holdridge said. "We wouldn't want that software to get into the hands of other vendors."

But states won't be taking proprietary software and putting it on the Web, said Dixon. "This won't be Napster for components," he said.

Industry officials also identified other problems that could hinder component sharing. EDS' Chambers noted that the lack of standards and resistance to cultural change may limit the ability of states to share components among themselves.

He said the different ways that states collect and record data, and the differences in work-flow procedures are going to limit the ability to reuse a component. Also, a component's size can be a problem in and of itself because of the challenges associated with manipulating large amounts of code in the larger components.

Sprecher said states in the past have attempted to promote component sharing through partnerships with individual companies. Under these arrangements, the state would serve as the initial location for a new system and help fund its development; the state then would share in the profits when the company sold the system to other states.

"I am not sure any of these projects have been a rousing success," he said.

Although Singer is optimistic about the long-term benefits of the component-sharing program, he said states are just beginning to identify what components they might share with each other.

Two pilot projects were conducted this year to test the feasibility of component sharing among states.

In one, Arkansas shared three components for an online motor vehicle registration service with Georgia, resulting in savings of about $45,000. In another, Washington state shared a template for online boating permits with Pennsylvania, resulting in savings of about $15,000, said the state officials involved.

NASCIO officials said the push to bring services online is creating a strong demand for e-government component sharing among states. The processes associated with permitting and licensing are particularly suited for component sharing, because most of the code can be reused without modification to accommodate unique state requirements, said Charles Gerhards, Pennsylvania's CIO.

Components also might be shared for federally funded programs, particularly those in the area of health and human services where the federal government advocates uniformity among state systems, he said.

"Anything from the federal government that we all perform would be an opportunity," Gerhards said.

The success of the project will rest partly on ComponentSource's ability to catalog and store the components in a way that states can match component capabilities against their requirements and standards, said state and industry officials.

About the Author

William Welsh is a freelance writer covering IT and defense technology.

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