BI in the federal government

Portals clearly are an important part of any BI environment.

This article originally appeared on the BeyeNETWORK

Over the last five years, the E-Gov Knowledge Management Conference has provided an excellent opportunity to take the pulse of business intelligence (BI) in government. As the program chair, I have used this gathering of several hundred knowledge management practitioners from the public sector, primarily the federal government, to do an informal survey of participants. The specific intent has been to understand the state of knowledge management in the federal government, but the survey has also allowed us to draw some interesting conclusions about BI in the federal environment.

One of the core questions we asked has to do with identifying exactly what agencies are doing under the aegis of knowledge management (KM). Therefore, we asked: “Indicate all the disciplines involved in your KM initiative” and provide a multiple choice list that includes: communities of practice, document management, storytelling, data warehousing, data mining, portals, E-Learning, Customer Relationship Management (CRM), content management, collaboration, and other disciplines. Respondents were encouraged to mark as many of the items that apply to their organization.

Until last year, invariably the No. 1 scoring activity mentioned by federal KM practitioners was “portals.” In effect, the surrogate for KM, the top of the list for federal agencies involved in a KM initiative, seemed to be building a portal.

Let’s try to interpret what this means. The Oxford Dictionary defines a portal as “a doorway or gate, especially an elaborate one.” For a portal to be an effective knowledge management or BI tool, it has to provide some of the functionality characteristic of these disciplines. But most important, the portal must give us access to the enterprise’s knowledge base. Just as the dictionary would have us understand, the portal is only an entry point. If there is nothing behind the portal, then it is not very useful at all. Unfortunately, we see this phenomenon at work more often than anyone would like. And this is not just in the public sector, but anywhere on the net. In many cases, you’d think the URL should be “www.nothinghere.com” or something similar, to make a point.

Portals clearly are an important part of any BI environment. But for a portal to truly serve users – knowledge workers – in accomplishing their objectives, the enterprise must have its “data house” in order and make it accessible through the portal. There has to be a well-organized and architected space behind the portal that will allow users to easily navigate it and access the knowledge elements and BI they seek.

For all the portal construction we are seeing throughout the federal government, there are still too many URLs that do not provide much value. The first E-Government “czar” the federal government had was Mark Foreman, Associate Director for E-Government at the Office of Management and Budget. Foreman established a criterion of E-Gov usability that was translated as “three clicks to action.” Quite often what we find in today’s government portals, though, is three clicks to a brick wall.

I like to think of a portal as the entrance to the library. First of all, there is no reason to build an entrance if you have no library. So let’s concentrate on the back end, on acquiring, storing, and organizing the documents and content, which constitute the prime knowledge assets of the enterprise. Let’s focus on having a solid taxonomy to assist us in finding the specific BI we need; and let’s facilitate the capability of visitors to find things by providing them with a solid workbench of tools to navigate through the content behind the portal.

The library analogy is also useful on other fronts. You need a library card to borrow books; you need an ID and a password to enter and use a portal. The library must provide you with a card or automated catalog to find books; the portal must give the user the tools to find content. Occasionally we need a reference librarian; the portal must likewise provide access to expert assistance in finding knowledge assets. There are many similarities.

In a complex and pluralistic nation where so many competing interests must play out in the public policy arena, governance cannot escape being a complex endeavor. Even if we focus exclusively on the federal government, the citizen needs a playbook and scorecard to know who does what to whom and how to interact with the many agencies in a reasonably effective manner. BI, rather than purely information exchange, will be the killer application in citizen relationship management but that “library” of citizen services will have to be easily accessible through an entrance provided by robust portal. Visit http://www.firstgov.gov/. It is a great start. But we still have a long way to go. 

Dr. Barquin is the President of Barquin International, a consulting firm, since 1994. He specializes in developing information systems strategies, particularly data warehousing, customer relationship management, business intelligence and knowledge management, for public and private sector enterprises. He has consulted for the U.S. Military, many government agencies and international governments and corporations.

Dr. Barquin is a member of the E-Gov (Electronic Government) Advisory Board, and chair of its knowledge management conference series; member of the Digital Government Institute Advisory Board; and has been the Program Chair for E-Government and Knowledge Management programs at the Brookings Institution. He was also the co-founder and first president of The Data Warehousing Institute, and president of the Computer Ethics Institute. His PhD is from MIT. Dr. Barquin can be reached at rbarquin@barquin.com.

Editor's note: More government articles, resources, news and events are available in the BeyeNETWORK's Government Channel. Be sure to visit today!

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