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Examining The Importance Of Sharing Information Information Technology Essay

Effective governance is a collaborative exercise that requires the coordination and cooperation of stakeholders across functional boundaries (such as between the Ministry of Public Service and the Ministry of Finance), jurisdictional boundaries (such as between Federal and local governments), and organizational boundaries (such as between aid donors and recipients). In the health sector, for example, effective disease surveillance requires health centers to share epidemiological information between remote locations and central authorities. Likewise, within the public safety sphere, law enforcement officers should have access to a suspect’s criminal history, regardless of where the crime was committed. Within the context of commerce and economic development, improving information sharing between registry offices, tax collection agents, and local officials can reduce opportunities for corruption, alleviate administrative burdens on the private sector, and enable more accountable financial management. By connecting disparate systems, eGovernment practitioners can help policy makers and civil servants improve the delivery of services to citizens.

While the need to share information is common to all governments, the imperative for developing countries is particularly acute because of the requirements associated with receiving foreign aid. Developing mechanisms to share information is an essential requirement for formulating holistic development policy, performance management, creating efficient and transparent systems, and improving coordination with donor organizations. Common requirements such as managing revenue from aid agreements, establishing program monitoring and evaluation, and coordinating the involvement of non-state actors necessitate systems that can share information across boundaries. Currently, many countries rely on ad-hoc systems and custom approaches such as submitting Excel documents to accomplish this type of collaboration. This approach leads to systems that are unnecessarily complicated, inaccurate, inefficient, and that create the opportunity for corruption and weaken accountability. Deploying systems that can more easily share information would be a useful step to resolving these challenges.

Sharing information could also alleviate the structural constraints that complicate the system design and implementation process in developing countries. In particular, the large number of organizations (donor agencies, NGOs, multi-lateral organizations, etc.) that fund activities and the limitations inherent in nascent infrastructure and inadequate technical capacity create an environment that is perceived as inhospitable to cutting-edge technology. Implementing partners, who receive funding from different organizations and operate with different mandates, build systems without awareness of other initiatives. This lack of coordination can burden countries in emerging markets with incompatible tools that are expensive to integrate and inhibit interoperability. Likewise, while it is essential to deploy systems that are appropriate for the technical environment, concerns about the capacity of the system users and administrators, limited funding, and the limited technical expertise of implementing partners often result in systems that are unable to evolve as the country builds capacity.

Building information-sharing systems can help overcome these constraints by making it easier and less expensive to migrate information from extant basic systems to more modern ones. It enables the creation of ecosystems in which implementing partners can deploy new tools that integrate data from multiple – potentially legacy – sources and provide new capabilities. For example, in the United States, the Federal Bureau of Investigation built the National Law Enforcement Data Exchange (N-DEx) that integrates case and incident reports from over 18,000 local law enforcement agencies [1] . In addition to providing a single interface to access nation-wide crime data, this system detects relationships within the data to support criminal investigations. Since the systems on the local level were designed to support information sharing, the new FBI system provides advanced capabilities to the local jurisdictions without requiring those organizations to invest in new technology. Donors and implementing partners can replicate this paradigm in developing countries and help resolve the tensions inherent to an operating environment with a large number of participants and limited infrastructure and technical capacity.

Developing Standards for Cross-Boundary Information Sharing

The first step to sharing information is establishing broadly accepted standards. In developing countries, however, the need to accommodate a wide range of technologies, partners, and regulatory regimes makes this exercise particularly challenging. There is currently a nascent effort to establish international standards for sharing aid data through the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI) [2] . While this effort, which focuses on sharing information between donor and recipient governments, is an important first step, it will not address broader issues such as policy formulation, performance management or transparent budgeting within the government. Likewise, the Impact Review and Investment Standards (IRIS), which concentrate on the impact of companies on social welfare, only address the needs of the private sector [3] . The emergence of these standards is encouraging, but they represent discrete efforts that only consider one aspect of the information sharing need. They would benefit from adopting a common framework that can be adapted to a wide range of uses.

While the technology to support this type of information sharing exists today, incompatible information standards make it cumbersome and costly for systems that were initially designed with a specific functional or geographic scope to exchange information. This failure to integrate complementary sources of information can have devastating effects. In the United States, the inability of law enforcement and intelligence agencies to collaborate across jurisdictional boundaries was widely cited as one of the reasons the government failed to prevent the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The systems and information existed is separate databases and the government lacked the ability to connect the intelligence. In response, the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Homeland Security designed the National Information Exchange Model (NIEM) to facilitate the development of information exchange standards that can be “uniformly developed, centrally maintained, quickly identified and discovered, and efficiently reused” [4] . These standards underpin information exchange systems and allow the creation of cost-effective systems to improve decision-making.

NIEM has grown beyond its origins in law enforcement and public safety and is currently used by US federal, state and local government agencies to support a wide range of requirements such as monitoring the export of controlled technology and children’s social services. In 2010, the US Government released guidance that charged all US Federal Agencies with the requirement to "evaluate the adoption and use of NIEM...to support specification and implementation of reusable cross-boundary information exchanges" [5] .

The NIEM Architecture and its ability to incorporate existing standards make it an appealing framework for information sharing. Its governance model encourages a federated structure where communities of interest are responsible for domains that address their business requirements. For example, data elements that are commonly used for criminal justice purposes are grouped within a law enforcement domain, while elements that support export controls are grouped within the international trade domain. A core domain that contains data components that are common to multiple missions (such as person, organization, or address) connects the various domains and enables interoperability. This federated approach, which is depicted in Figure 1, allows NIEM to be easily extendable and scalable to an endless number of business requirements.

Source: www.niem.gov

Figure 1: NIEM Core and Domains

A second advantage of NIEM is that it supports the incorporation of independently developed standards and new conventions that emerge as part of the NIEM development lifecycle. When the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Homeland Security officially launched it in February 2005, it extended the Global Justice XML Data Model (Global JXDM) [6] and focused almost exclusively on law enforcement and criminal justice. Over time, it developed additional domains to accommodate new requirements. These new domains drew upon existing standards already operating alongside NIEM. For example, in December 2008, NIEM 2.1 incorporated existing standards such as the US Department of Defense’s Maritime Information Exchange Model 1.0 (MIEM) and the US Department of Homeland Security’s North American Industry Classification System (NAICS Codes) [7] . NIEM 2.1 also included customized NIEM schemas that the US Department of Health and Human Services developed to support information sharing between courts and child-support enforcement agencies and between courts and child welfare agencies. This model of growth over time shows how NIEM can be used as a broader framework to incorporate independently developed standards.

Suitability of NIEM for Developing Countries

Although the US government pioneered the use of NIEM, we believe it has applications throughout the world and, in particular, within developing countries. Many data exchange standards – including NIEM – provide a common vocabulary of agreed-upon terms, definitions, and formats that can be exchanged independently of the way information is stored in individual agency systems. NIEM is particularly well suited for developing countries because it offers a set of tools to develop information exchange requirements in an implementation-ready format. These tools allow developers to follow a standard, proven, process for building reusable and sustainable information exchanges that support business requirements. By coupling the standard vocabulary of a data-exchange with established processes, software, and templates, NIEM offers four distinct advantages to alternative models:

Incorporation of Existing Standards. NIEM uses eXtensible Markup Language (XML) to provide a concise and defined vocabulary for sharing critical information [8] . Recognizing that other communities use other information exchange standards, NIEM supports multiple XML-based standards within a NIEM-conformant exchange. For example, existing NIEM-conformant exchanges leverage eXtensible Business Reporting Language (XBRL) to share financial reporting data and the National Institute for Standards and Technology (NIST) geospatial standard to share location information. This structure will allow countries to incorporate emerging standards such as the International Aid and Transparency Standard, which is being developed to share and aggregate information on foreign aid.

Flexibility to Support Local Needs. From its origin, NIEM was designed to be extensible to a wide range of uses. NIEM defines a set of building blocks that are used as a consistent baseline for creating exchange documents and transactions within a government agency, among agencies within the central government and between the central government and state and local organizations. The NIEM framework provides standard vocabulary, guidance, and processes that help promote effective and efficient information sharing capabilities across organizational boundaries. Today, it supports information exchanges in domains that range from public safety to child health services, and grant management. In a developing country context, developers can customize exchanges to support the specific mission and data requirements of a given project while still providing a common framework to support reuse across organizations and countries. The ability to reuse exchanges – both exchanges developed by other organizations and multiple instances of the same exchange within a given organization – is a key element of the NIEM value proposition.

Improved Sustainability through Established Governance Structure. NIEM, which is an open standard, has an extensive governance structure that combines executive leadership with local involvement. Currently, as founders and primary implementers, the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Homeland Security lead the NIEM PMO, which provides the overall vision, technical support, and training outreach and local communities of interest support the domains. As agencies elect to implement NIEM, they can be confident that the model will remain a stable standard, and, at the same time, a model that will evolve as needs change. The NIEM Governance structure provides an appropriate balance of technical and executive support and direction, input and strategic direction based on grass-roots involvement of NIEM developers and managers, and a change management process that ensures a stable, open standard over time.

Lower Total Cost of Ownership. Consistent use of NIEM results in measurable cost savings through utilizing standardized analysis, development, and implementation methodologies, effectively reusing common data exchange specifications and components and realizing economies of scale through shared governance, training and technical assistance. NIEM is a repeatable process that shortens development time. Additionally, NIEM tools, training and processes for both limited exchanges between a small number of systems as well as large deployments that must accommodate hundreds of legacy investments.

For these reasons, we believe that NIEM can make an important contribution to improving governance in developing countries. In order to assess the adaptability of NIEM to a new environment, we examined a case study in which NIEM was employed to monitor government expenditure.

Case Study: Using NIEM to Improve Transparency

This case study shows how the US Office of Management and Budget (OMB), which is the part of the Executive Office of the President and is responsible for developing policy and guidance for all executive agencies within the US Government, adopted NIEM to improve the transparency of government spending. As NIEM had never been used for this purpose before, new data elements were required to support grant management and financial reporting. This activity, which is directly applicable to many developing countries, shows how NIEM can be used to facilitate information sharing and enable more accountable governance. In addition it explores NIEM’s flexibility and adaptability to new environments.

As we reviewed the case study, we asked the following questions:

Is NIEM flexible and adaptable enough to handle new business requirements? While NIEM has been successful for sharing information for public safety and emergency management purposes, it has not yet been widely adopted for other purposes. NIEM is appealing for developing countries because it offers a single framework that can accommodate a range of requirements. The case study explores the level of effort associated with using NIEM in a new context.

How does NIEM incorporate previously developed standards? NIEM should not stifle existing efforts to develop standards. In developing countries, where a large number of participants develop systems, it is wasteful to ignore past investments and innovations. NIEM should be used to harmonize and promote those initiatives rather than replace them.

What level of technical capability does NIEM require? Many developing countries struggle to train and retain their technical workforce. We want to evaluate the technical challenges associated with developing NIEM conformant exchanges in order to see if it is practical with local expertise or if it requires external technical assistance.

The challenge

The American Reinvestment and Recovery Act (ARRA) was enacted in February 2009 as a stimulus package in response to the economic crisis that surfaced in the fall of 2008. The Recovery Act provided grants and awards to local institutions and included Federal tax cuts, an expansion of unemployment benefits, and domestic spending in education, health care and infrastructure to stimulate the economy. In support of agency reporting efforts, the Office of Management Budget (OMB) established requirements for the creation of Weekly Financial and Activity Reports, Funding Notification Reports and Recipient Reports submissions. These reports would be available on the recovery.gov website (http://www.recovery.gov), allows the general public to view agency spending reports and provides a forum for identifying suspected fraud, waste or abuse related to Recovery Act funding and projects.

Although the Recovery Act required extensive reporting by recipients, there was initially no standardized mechanism in place for recipients to provide their allocation spending details. The lack of standardization could have led to inconsistent data feeds and reports, resulting in labor-intensive and time-consuming efforts to reconcile information and compile reports into a standardized format for presentation to the American public.

The solution

The recovery.gov team, with support from the Deloitte National Information Exchange Model Program Management Office, conducted an alternatives analysis to understand the benefits of the use of NIEM or XBRL as the standardized reporting method. OMB chose to leverage NIEM for three reasons:

Open Standards and Familiarity. NIEM's utilization of XML conforms to recovery.gov's goal of using open standards. NIEM conformance ensures that the basic core set of information is understood and carries a consistent meaning across various communities. Since NIEM is widely used within numerous federal and state agencies, the model was more attractive for its use in recovery.gov reporting requirements.

Extensibility and Flexibility. NIEM provides tools to implement its core and structural components for message exchange and transaction creation. Information Exchange Package Documentation (IEPD) Factory, which is available at NIEM.gov, is a data-modeling tool that supports rapid changes, allowing participants to adapt to new data requirements.

Reuse and Reconciliation. In order to enable transparency, the ARRA required reports at multiple stages that could be reconciled to existing systems such as the United States Department of the Treasury's Federal Agencies Centralized Trial-Balance System II (FACTS II) and websites such as FedBizOpps.gov, Grants.gov, and GovLoans.gov. By creating elements that identify information that is common across multiple reports, the recovery.gov NIEM-compliant schema could aggregate information across multiple agencies or grant recipients and reconcile that information with other reports.

Based on the review of functional requirements, the OMB team developed three NIEM-based information exchange package documentations (IEPDs) for the recovery.gov effort:

Financial and Activity Reports, which are submitted weekly by the spending agency and capture core obligation totals, gross outlays and action elements deemed of interest to senior government officials, Congress, and the public.

Recipient Reports, which the recipient of government money submits, track the distribution of money and the number of jobs created.

Funding Notification Reports, which the spending agency submits on awarding a grant, contract, loan, or cooperative agreement, capture information about the funding, the recipient, and the place of performance.

These IEPDs consist of a collection of instances that combine core obligation totals, gross outlays and action elements. OMB published these exchange schema specifications to enable automated processing. This effort took 60 to 90 days to complete.

Results

Recipients of federal funds submitted 470,550 reports between February 17th 2009, when the act was signed into law and March 31st 2010 [9] . Using NIEM as a standard to support the information exchange allowed OMB to achieve its goals at lower cost. OMB quickly established consensus and connected disparate systems. NIEM worked and it worked quickly. Using NIEM allowed OMB to collect information from state and local governments and implementing partners. These organizations were able to use their existing systems to provide the data which is now available for analysis and review. It also allowed the recovery.gov effort to avoid approximately $12 million (69%) of costs with 100 systems consuming the data exchanges. These cost saving estimates were achieved by standardizing reporting submissions based on the three NIEM-conformant information exchanges.

Using NIEM for recovery.gov also demonstrated the potential and limitations for NIEM in developing countries. First, it proved to be highly adaptable to new business requirements. The recovery.gov IEPDs represent the first use of NIEM and the NIEM development lifecycle to enable financial reporting. The three NIEM Information Exchanges that were implemented in under 3 months and resulted in significant cost avoidances across the agencies and recipients. Currently, the NIEM PMO, supported by Deloitte, is developing a new NIEM Financial domain based on the work conducted for recovery.gov. This model, where a business case is identified, exchanges are built to support a specific purpose, and common elements become a permanent part of a NIEM domain, can be easily replicated in developing countries.

Second, the NIEM architecture also proved capable of incorporating existing standards such as XBRL. While more work needs to be done to ensure that the linkages between NIEM and XBRL are transparent, the ability to quickly incorporate existing standards shows how NIEM can be used in developing countries while maintaining existing efforts. The recover.gov effort continued a tradition on NIEM leveraging previous work.

Finally, the case study showed that NIEM requires experienced XML developers to produce exchange documentation. While online tools help reduce some of the requirements, NIEM is a complex framework and successful deployments require developers who are already familiar with the model and XML. This weakness suggests that NIEM will require significant commitment and technical support from donor agencies if it is to become prevalent in developing countries.

Overall, the case study demonstrates that using NIEM to share information is quick, cost-effective, and versatile. It accommodates existing standards and can support information sharing without redeploying legacy systems that contain data. The next section examines lessons learned from using NIEM and suggests next steps for implementation in developing countries.

Lessons For Using NIEM in DEVELOPING COUNTRIES

Lessons Learned

The successful creation of NIEM-based information exchanges for Recovery.Gov offers lessons for using NIEM in general and, in particular, in developing countries. Applying these lessons to IEPD development will enable eGovernment projects to enjoy the benefits of NIEM and deploy exchanges that are reusable, sustainable, and cost-effective.

Leverage Existing Standards. Within 90 days, the US government developed and propagated data exchange standards for grants management and financial reporting – which were new ways of using the NIEM which had before, primarily been used for deployments that support public safety, emergency management and counter-terrorism. The existence of established standards – and the native ability of NIEM to incorporate those standards – allowed them to accelerate the development cycle while retaining NIEM’s data architecture and proven processes.

Use incentives and mandates. Adoption of NIEM requires both incentives (e.g. the lower cost of ownership and greater sustainability) and mandates (e.g. requirements to submit reports in a common format). In this case, OMB required all funding recipients and donors to use the NIEM standard. Likewise, both the US Department of Justice and the US Department of Homeland Security require internal departments and grant recipients to leverage NIEM whenever possible. These factors are a major contributor to the adoption of NIEM within the government and by external partners.

Focus on Specific Use Cases. The recovery.gov team was able to develop information exchanges that support specific use cases such as funding announcements or recipient reporting. This was more effective than arbitrarily imaging a potential requirement and building a solution that may – or may not – be useful. Effective information exchanges support specific mission objectives and, by defining the requirements before identifying the data elements that constitute the exchange, NIEM implementers can build exchanges that are appropriate for the business context and identify opportunities to reuse data elements. The NIEM IEPD development lifecycle, which is the process for defining a data exchange and determining its specifications, begins by conducting a business analysis and requirements review. This approach allows implementers to build solutions that streamline data transfers while maintaining broader applicability.

Plan for Reuse. The ability to reuse NIEM IEPDs with multiple partners is a key component of the NIEM value proposition and reduces the cost of ownership. For projects in developing countries, it is useful to design information exchanges that can be used in multiple locations and by multiple countries. This encourages the natural evolution of standards. For example, in the case study above, the use of NIEM for reporting is leading to a larger domain of financial management data elements that can be used – and reused – by any NIEM implementer.

These lessons learned inform next steps for creating standards that can support information sharing in developing countries.

Implications for Using NIEM in Developing Countries

We believe that NIEM could provide an appealing framework for establishing information sharing standards in developing countries that can increase transparency and improve governance. Based on our review of NIEM’s evolution and its use for recovery.gov, we believe that NIEM can only emerge as a standard with significant collaboration and support from donors, recipient countries, and implementing partners. In particular, increasing NIEM adoption in developing countries will require encouragement from donors, implementing partners such as contractors and NGOs, and aid recipients, increased training, and the deployment of tools to facilitate reuse of NIEM exchanges.

As described above, powerful government agencies drove NIEM adoption in the United States by requiring organizations that receive grants to use NIEM exchanges to fulfill both mission and reporting requirements. Within the context of international aid, pressure to use NIEM for aid projects should come from both the funding organization and the recipient country. The funding agency could mandate the use of NIEM as a mechanism for providing financial reports and monitoring and evaluation information. In addition to enabling greater transparency of aid data, this approach would have the auxiliary benefit of raising awareness and familiarity with NIEM. OMB was able to deploy recovery.gov quickly because state and local governments were already familiar with NIEM from other mission areas such as criminal justice and child welfare. Increasing awareness of NIEM creates a critical mass of developers that reaps unexpected dividends.

Recipient governments also have an interest in encouraging NIEM because it allows them to impose quality control and ensure that they use global standards as opposed to the various approaches proposed by different donor organizations. Aid recipients rely on the expertise and experience of the organization that deploys the technology they receive. If the partner organization is unaware of the broader context of the system, it can result in isolated information silos that prevent interoperability. For example, a financial management system must interact with other systems that support aid management and human resources. When different donors fund each of these systems, it can be difficult for the recipient government to ensure that they can exchange information. By mandating that implementing partners use NIEM, recipient nations can be confident that those exchanges can occur without needing to validate the specific exchange standards adopted by each donor organization.

This does not mean, however, that donor organizations should adopt NIEM in lieu of existing standards. Rather, they should take advantage of past work and incorporate and harmonize that information with the NIEM model. Likewise, it does not mean that a central standards body should establish standards a priori before a business objective requires an exchange. The NIEM development lifecycle focuses on operationalizing specific business processes rather than creating exchanges without a real-world use. More importantly, the NIEM architecture, which can grow and adapt as standards emerge, makes this approach unnecessary.

Rather than creating standards that all partners must follow, a better approach would be to increase awareness and provide training that empowers development partners to create exchanges that respond to specific business problems. Over time, exchanges that contain frequently used data elements could be harmonized and “graduated” into a discrete domain. The NIEM PMO currently offers training that targets four distinct audiences to build NIEM knowledge across various participant levels. Instructors and training material are custom-built for the particular audience so each participant receives training that is appropriate for their level within an organization. The online training, which was developed by Deloitte Consulting, ranges from a basic introduction that is intended for managers to more advanced topics such as identifying – and reusing – existing exchanges and building new ones. For developing countries, the training should be adapted to support additional languages as well as incorporate example use cases that are more common. It should also be adapted as a classroom based training that could provide a refresher course on web standards such as XML.

Finally, while encouraging donor organizations and providing NIEM training will increase NIEM adoption, it will not lead to the common reuse of exchange standards by multiple countries. The potential for reuse represents the key value proposition of NIEM. As part of the broader support for NIEM, the US government has used two approaches to encourage implementing partners to adopt existing NIEM exchanges standards rather than recreate new standards based on the NIEM model. First, the US Department of Justice developed best-in-class NIEM exchanges that can be used for the exchange of criminal records. Major information systems rely on this exchange standard to share information within the Department and with external partners. Second, and more importantly, the government established repositories where developers can post and store NIEM exchanges standards that they have developed. These exchanges and their accompanying documentation are freely available to download and modify as needed by other users. This growing library uses a federated model where repositories that specialize in specific types of information exchange can be created while still sharing meta-data about the exchange standards with a single location. To support the use of NIEM within developing countries, major donors should work together to create an online environment that focuses on business problems that are common to countries that receive development assistance.

Conclusion

Information sharing can improve governance in all countries but is particularly important for developing countries. It enables more transparency, heightened accountability and more efficient delivery of services to citizens. In addition, it addresses problems unique to countries that receive donor support such as coordinating aid revenue and providing monitoring and evaluation metrics.

NIEM was developed by the US government to support cross-boundary information sharing. While it has not yet been adopted outside of the United States, it is well suited for developing countries. In particular, its incorporation of existing standards, its flexibility, and its low total-cost of ownership make it appealing. As demonstrated by the use of NIEM to support recovery.gov, NIEM can be quickly adapted to new domains.

While these characteristics make NIEM appealing, the donor community will need to be proactive to encourage NIEM adoption within developing countries. In particular, they should focus on encouraging – and mandating - development partners to use NIEM for financial reporting, adapt existing training for new audiences, and develop standard tools that can support the reuse of exchange standards.

This approach will allow NIEM to grow organically and create a powerful new tool for standardizing data exchanges, allow governments to have better access to information, and, ultimately, to improve collaboration and governance.

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