Transforming the public sector part 3: UK, Belgium & Norway


28 Aug 2003

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The last in our series on global e-government projects sees how a new passport system in being rolled out in Belgium and the UK; checks on the progress of the UK’s government gateway and how the Norwegian military is using technology to improve maintenance operations for its air force.

UK: Microsoft aims to ‘unlock democracy’

Like the Irish Government, the UK Government has committed to enabling electronic communication between its citizens and all areas of government by 2005 to comply with the EU directive. A key component of that strategy has been the government gateway, a hub that would act as a single means of linking a variety of interfaces including websites, kiosks, digital TV and so on with public sector bodies be they local authorities, healthcare trusts or central government departments.

The first phase of the government gateway went live in March 2001 and allowed businesses to communicate electronically with the Inland Revenue, Customs and Excise and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Microsoft, which was selected as principal partner for the gateway project, rolled out that first phase on time only 75 days after being awarded the contract.

This is only one of many e-government projects in which the software giant is involved. According to Derrick McCourt, group manager public sector, Microsoft Ireland, the company’s success in that area can be attributed to three factors. “Firstly, we have made a lot of commitment in terms of resources in partnering with public sector,” he says. “We have almost 2,000 people dedicated to serving the government sector worldwide. We would see ourselves positioned to provide integration pieces, bringing together disparate legacy systems. That is the challenge, as governments continue head on to create citizen interfaces without thinking through the underlying architecture.”

The second factor, he says, is that Microsoft is empowering public employees to provide services by putting the information they need at their fingertips. “The internet is not the only interface for e-government,” he points out, as governments create contact centres to act as an interface with the public. The third factor is the citizen interface, ready to connect government with constituents.

The technological key, he says, is the .Net platform. “.Net provides an end-to-end solution. It provides a programming model and programming tools as well as client software that governments need to share information. Then if you look at the integration piece, it’s all based around XML [extensible markup language] and XML web services.”

And so it is with the UK’s government gateway. The gateway takes full advantage of the .Net Enterprise Server, which Microsoft says has the scalability and reliability required to accommodate all UK citizens and businesses. All interfaces — websites, portals, digital TV information kiosks and so on — will send information to the gateway in XML and the gateway will use business rules to determine where and how the information should be directed.

To encourage public sector bodies to make full use of the gateway, the UK Government has set up the GovTalk website, which provides draft and agreed schemas, guidance on best practice, online support and toolkits to convert legacy data into XML. “The challenge facing governments is to unlock legacy data,” says McCourt. “XML is the tool to do that and .Net is the most effective platform to deliver on XML.”

Belgium/UK: Siemens offers a passport to successful e-government

Siemens is one of Europe’s largest IT firms involved in e-government projects. “We design, build and operate e-government solutions in partnership with government organisations,” says Derek Wilson, managing director, Siemens business services in Ireland. “That could be the hardware or software infrastructure component and it could be end-to-end or simply individual components of a solution. We could also be asked to manage and maintain existing solutions.”

Wilson attributes Siemens’ success to its European roots. “Siemens is a European company and most growth in e-government is taking place at the moment in the European domain. I think the reason for this is because Europe is ahead of the pack. The social agenda, which a lot of European governments have, has prompted them to look for more efficient ways of interacting with citizens. The rest of the world is now catching up. There are exceptions but in general terms Europe is a leader in this area,” he adds.

Siemens, he continues, would have an understanding of the legal and regulatory environments involved and would also have longstanding relationships, even outside of the area of IT, with government bodies. “And there is also the fact that we can bring everything together under one banner,” he points out. “We have a long heritage of infrastructure provision and a strong project management ethos. It is our ability to bring these traits to e-government projects that has helped us.”

Wilson points to two ongoing e-government projects that exemplify Siemens’ ability. The first is for the Flemish Regional Government in Belgium. (Although only half the geographical size of Ireland, Belgium has several layers of government: federal, regional, provincial and municipal.) A horizontal portal (www.vlaanderen.be) allows the Flemish Government to host new e-government applications. Siemens developed the portal and provided the infrastructure to bring existing applications to the citizens of Flanders. The portal, which is media independent, allows users to sign on once and receive any and all information of specific interest to them without compromising security. Users can also personalise the experience. According to Wilson, the Flemish contract had an outsourcing component. “We do all of the management as well,” he says.

The second is the UK Passport Service, which is responsible for establishing the qualification for and issuing of all passports within the UK and handles over five million applications per year. Specific characteristics of the project include large database storage and the migration of over 20 years of historical data.

“The project is to design, build and operate a new passport system,” says Wilson. “It’s not just IT expertise that is required here. We also have to bring our expertise in business processes to the project.”

The project requires delivery of a new passport application system (PASS) and front end services. When completed, PASS will enable the provision of a much more secure passport document and facilitate the detection of fraud.

Norway: Flying high with Hewlett-Packard

The role of government extends not only to delivering services to its citizens but includes protecting the national territory. Given its close proximity to what was once the USSR and its membership of NATO, Norway’s military needs are somewhat different to Ireland’s. The Royal Norwegian Air Force (RNoAF) operates a fleet of 108 fixed-wing aircraft — including 58 F-16 fighters — and 36 helicopters, all of which must be at the highest levels of readiness at all times.

Maintenance operations are, therefore, of extreme importance. An air force isn’t much use against an invader if all of the planes are grounded for repairs. To manage these operations the RNoAF had been using a system based on an Intel/Olivetti-Unix platform that had evolved over a period of 25 years. This, however, was considered unsatisfactory for the 21st century and so the RNoAF turned to Hewlett-Packard (HP) and Industrial & Financial Systems AB (IFS) for help.

The new system known as IMAS (Integrated Material and Administration System) has now been delivered. Work began in 1997 with preliminary studies for the system hardware. The existing system contained a substantial quantity of data covering both maintenance and finance. This data had to be migrated to the new system in such a way that users wouldn’t notice any difference, other than a significant increase in speed.

The system is used at 18 different sites across Norway. Each had its own Unix-based server, four Oracle databases and two Unix-based applications. The databases were successfully moved to the new RA-RISC/HP-UX platform after thorough testing and installation procedures. Each of the servers had to be identically installed in terms of both hardware and software. HP designed a ‘master environment’ based on a complete ‘master server’ the SD-UX product bundled with HP-UX and a CD burner.

All of the software, the operating system, applications, Oracle relational database management system products and in-house applications were packaged together on a CD-Rom and distributed to each location. Furthermore, while the servers were networked, it was imperative that each be capable of being administered locally in the event that communications with other locations were severed and that the method in which they were administered should be identical at each location. HP worked with the RNoAF to customise the system administration manager giving it menu-driven, system administration tasks for the Oracle databases and in-house applications.

By all accounts the new system has been a great success. Unlike the older system it covers the entire life cycle of the RNoAF’s weapon systems from design and construction to delivery, operations and eventually decommissioning. For instance, as a fighter’s operation record is logged on the system, maintenance plans based on those data are generated. And it’s not just scheduling that takes place. Skill availability is also programmed and material requirements are flagged with replacement purchasing triggered as necessary.

“HP and IFS have done a great job designing and putting this original and complex system together with very few hiccups and right on schedule,” says Frode Bakken, information systems manager, air material command, RNoAF.


Fast facts

* The number of mobile subscribers in Russia more than doubled in 2002 with many citizens leapfrogging fixed-line services entirely.

* Honolulu is the top ranked broadband market in the world with 40pc of adults accessing the web via ISDN, DSL, or cable modem.

* Canada leads the world in terms of overall e-government maturity, according to a study from Accenture.

* Theft of usernames and passwords in India is such a big problem that it has severely damaged confidence in e-commerce.

* Australia has one of the most security-conscious governments in the world and last year introduced a cyber crime bill that criminalises hacking, virus propagation and website vandalism.

* Taiwan is subsidising 20,000 SMEs to set up internet databases and online trading systems.

* Only one in 250 Africans uses the internet, when you take South Africa out of the equation, compared to one out of every two in North America and Europe.

Facts courtesy of Accenture, IBM and the Economist Business Unit