Realizing the Promise: Government Information Systems and the Fourth Generation of Information Technology(*)

Article excerpt

Concerned parents noticed an abnormally high incidence of leukemia among River Valley High School graduates, in Marion, Ohio. After investigating their hunches, they learned that leukemia rates had increased 122 percent between 1966 and 1995. The parents then learned that the high school was built near a World War II bomb-making plant that had leaked cancer-causing chemicals. Relating disease clusters to environmental factors occurred through personal recollections of friends and family of the cancer victims. It took almost 30 years for the community to accumulate the evidence to tie their hunch to a suspected cause (adapted from Rieppenhoff and Woods [1997]).

Interoperability among epidemiological, Department of Defense, and Census Bureau information systems could have facilitated making these correlations faster and easier, perhaps saving lives.

While technology offers great promise for improving government, it is also true that every important new technology invariably poses a challenge to the status quo and puts a strain on existing social contracts on "who gets what." In the River Valley case, collecting information about cancer-causing agents would have made it much easier to anticipate potential problems. But is this something that is central to the mission of the Department of Defense? How does the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) make the case to the Department of Defense that it should provide this information to the EPA?

This article argues that interoperability is more than getting bits and bytes to flow properly--fundamentally, the goal of interoperability is the much more difficult problem of getting people and organizations to share information in an information-technology environment.

To really understand the possibilities, it is important to see the big picture of the opportunities for improving government through the appropriate use of technology. In the span of some 50 years, our computing technology has already gone through three significantly different generations of computers (Andersen and Dawes 1991).(1) We are now living in the fourth generation of computing technology--the networking of computers. The introduction of the World Wide Web is the most visible of the many new fourth-generation technologies.

The third generation of computers--personal computers--increased the ability to collect and store information on each person's desktop. Yet with this exponential growth in the power of personal computers, the fourth generation of computers is even more impressive because it leverages the power of each of these powerful desktop computers. The leverage is gained through the networking of computers. Theoretically, networking makes it possible for the information and processing power on all of these desktop, mainframe, and super computers to become available on each individual's desktop. In practice, the problem of "interoperability" is how to make this promise a reality.

This article begins with two illustrations of attempts to improve interoperability. The literature review then builds a comprehensive list of the major threats and opportunities to interoperability, including prior work which has discussed the problem or a proposed solution.(2) The literature review examines the many dimensions of the interoperability question, including previous work on interoperability as well as relevant work on information-technology management, intergovernmental relations, and innovation, information, and information technology policy.

After the literature review, the methodology section discusses several phases in the research design. A key element in obtaining rigorous results was the use of a "tight" learning loop--every new insight or practical recommendation learned was immediately included in the set of working findings and recommendations so that it was tested in the next cycle. For example, where interviews were used, each person was asked, do you agree with our working set of findings and solutions? …