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Toward a paperless government

IBM's top software executive in Washington, D.C., Ray Wells, talks about Uncle Sam's progress toward becoming a paperless government.

When Congress passed the Government Paperwork Elimination Act in 1998, proponents talked about the remaking of an enormous paper-bound bureaucracy into the prototypical 21st century organization, complete with e-signatures and the electronic storage of documents. If you want an inkling of what this involves, consider that the federal government's computer systems stretch back some four decades, thus representing what may be the biggest IT petri dish in the world.

The deadline for complying with the bill came and went last week with little of the fanfare that accompanied the start of the project. CNET caught up with Ray Wells, IBM's top software executive in Washington, D.C., to gain some perspective on how close Uncle Sam is to realizing the ambition of a hard-copy-less system.

Q: Last week was the deadline for government agencies to comply with the Government Paperwork Elimination Act. How would you grade the government's performance to date?
A: I don't want to give a grade, but I think that all the agencies have been working hard to achieve the objective. It's an ambitious goal, but certainly, they realize that technology is what they need assistance with in order to meet the ultimate objectives of the act.

Will this turn out to be the biggest Web services implementation ever?
Certainly, the federal government represents the largest single IT market in the world...but they're trying one thing at a time, because you're building to a component architecture.

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You take a component that was built in the 1960s, a component built in the '70s and a component built in the '80s--you have to build the flows between those things to mask the complexity of the different applications with a simple portal interface.

Who's most responsible for dragging the government's agencies into the 21st century?
The Office of Management and Budget deserves major credit for getting people to cooperate. OMB's been particularly aggressive in this administration to simplify people's access to services, eliminate paperwork and ease the overall process of working with the government.

Has the initiative had enough active backing from the president?
OMB reflects the president's wishes.

Well, sometimes. Sometimes not.
Okay, but the major problem is the complexity of integrating systems that got built up over a 40-year period--most of it was never designed to be exposed to people except those who were highly trained in their use. This is a cultural change.

When you think of what's required with a major bank, such as a Bank of America for instance, they have much of the same problem.
Are there particular concerns or quirks that define federal agencies that attempt this sort of transformation, compared with a private company doing something similar?
The problems are pretty much the same. In certain instances, the government has security requirements that don't exist in much of the private sector. But when you think of what's required with a major bank such as the Bank of America, they have much of the same's boiling down to relatively small differences between the government and private sectors.

In comparing the public and private sectors, you say the particular differences aren't that significant and that it's boiling down to a relatively small number of differences between the government and private sectors. Can you be more specific?
Government is providing a unique set of services; one that only government should provide. Those services have narrowed in the last few years, as private enterprise has entered areas we used to think of as government services--trash collection, for example. But for the most part, the objectives industry has for eliminating paperwork and improving efficiency are the same for government. Industry wants to direct more of its money to its core mission, and that is the objective of government as well.

What's the biggest tech hurdle Uncle Sam faces in retrofitting legacy systems that date back more than four decades?

No one has touched those applications for many years.
Writing adaptors and Web services interfaces to those applications. No one has touched those applications for many years in some cases, and the business logic and the data logic is intertwined and thus hard to make available as a service.

You mentioned that there are applications that date back four decades. How quickly are federal agencies able to retrofit their legacy operations?
The big hurdle is just in trying to build adapters into those legacy systems, because they became pretty much one-off systems...the industry has begun to address that with Web services, which helps ease the problem of integration.

How long before they reach full compliance?
That's like asking, "How beautiful is your wife?" It all depends on how we define full compliance. I'd be cautious about making a value judgment. I'm not sure that I've seen any data to indicate how far along they are, but I think that considerable progress has been made, and as technologies such as Web services become more ubiquitous, you'll see even better compliance.

If we said they are today 90 percent compliant, does that mean that everything is seamless?
No. But if you look at the U.S. Department of Defense's human resources system, that will serve all the services and the civilian side of the house as well--it will interface with hundreds of systems but will look like a single system with a standard Web interface...that's what you're seeing more and more of now. We're light years ahead in terms of the technologies now available...What's happened since 1998 is that all the major players in the industry have agreed upon a small set of standards, and because we're not all out there building proprietary systems, the flow of functions and capability has become enormous.

In terms of moving toward getting everything into electronic form, what are the security implications of that transition from a technology perspective?
Security has to get a lot better. The industry has recognized that, and a new set of security standards is being developed by a consortium--the Trusted Computing Group. The intelligence community has long had a concept called multilevel security, which is designed to address these types of issues but requires a lot of physical separation. We have to develop this same degree of high-assurance security, and the Trusted Computing Group is working on these standards. All the industry giants are members of the consortium.

When all is said and done, what's going to be the biggest difference between the way the federal government functions prior to 1998 and post-2003?
Government will have entered the information age and have achieved the e-government objective and thus achieved a much higher level of efficiency.