Spinning the technology compass: What’s ahead in government IT in 2006?

By the time you read this, the bells of Christmas will have not only tolled, but faded, the Yule log will have burned to charcoal, the Christmas decorations will be snugly back in their boxes and the kids will finally be back at school. So what about the year ahead? What is coming up in public sector IT?Well, starting at the centre of the universe here in Ottawa, the burning imponderable is what will happen to the Liberals’ horizontal integration initiative called Service Canada and all the various technology initiatives it spurred, along with many others that have been melded to support it. Elsewhere across the country, the move toward e-government seems to be proceeding apace with hardly a missed beat.
While it may be only slightly less hazardous than interrupting holiday cheer by door-to-door campaigning, I will try to venture a few predictions for the coming year; my editor and I also promise not to hide under our desks if the e-mails fly thick and fast. (Ed’s note: speak for yourself!)
I predict that with or without Service Canada proceeding as chartered, vertical integration among the e-gov efforts of our four levels of government will accelerate and there will begin to arise a much more formal commonwealth of what I once called “progware,” a repository of generic, re-usable open source software modules, each of which does something basic required in program delivery, and which can be assembled in different combinations for different purposes. All four levels of government will draw on such sources, perhaps with the very progressive provincial governments of Alberta and New Brunswick leading the way.
There will be a move towards integrating and rationalizing the various e-health initiatives, several of which have grown like topsy and a couple of which have all but taken on lives of their own — and at least one of which seems to be totally out of control.
There will be a significant increase in the time, effort and money poured into contingency planning and business continuity planning not only in the private sector but also in governments at all levels across Canada. Also, the money devoted by large cities, the provinces and the federal government to emergency management will be substantially increased and either the existing federal-provincial Joint Emergency Preparedness Program (JEPP) will be substantially expanded or else it will be supplemented by an additional (new) program aimed explicitly at the application of advanced technology to such diverse areas as emergency operations centres, on-scene command support systems, first-responder alerting systems and public warning systems.
I also predict that the Order in Council passed by the Mulroney government to prevent JEPP being used to fund public warning systems will be repealed during 2006. Here again, in almost all areas of emergency management technology, it would be fair to say that Alberta and New Brunswick are so far ahead of Pubic Safety Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC) that they are pulling it along, if not dragging it. Canada is, unfortunately, somewhat overdue for a terrorist attack and we have already had some very close calls.
Of course, any successful attack will galvanize politicians and bureaucrats to action just as 9/11 did in the U.S. and we’ll probably also appoint a Royal Commission to examine why we were not better prepared.
The pace of major and inadvertent private and public sector disclosure of personal information over the last few years has been such that this may even become an election issue, no doubt resulting in the incoming government appointing a committee of ADMs or DMs to study the problem. The implications for public sector are immense; my American partners report that even mid-sized organizations in California are creaking under the ox-cart-sized burden of HIPPA and Sarbanes-Oxley, a set of measures which bring corporate reportability and accountability to whole new levels. We need to be careful that the cure is not worse than the disease.
On servers and even mainframes, open source software will cross the threshold from up-and-coming curiosity to mainstream entity; even on the desktop there will be some very serious pilots, possibly in such areas as computer-telephony integration (CTI) for the home workplace where the incipient instability of the Microsoft desktop continues to retard development. (People who work mostly at home expect carrier-grade reliability from their phone, something no software phone running on a Microsoft desktop platform can deliver.)
I predict that some public sector line managers and IT managers will simply bite the bullet and declare that if a Linux-based home PC with OpenOffice can provide robust integrated telephony, interchange MS object files with the office and permit easy access to enterprise applications, then they are prepared to pilot it. If these home workplace pilots are successful, Microsoft will promptly promise all kinds of new (analogue and VoIP) telephony integration, which it is no position to deliver, merely to forestall any serious move towards an OpenSource home desktop with built-in CTI. Why? Because this is how trends start.
A small piece of advice: as documented in my first book (Migrating to Open Systems — Taming the Tiger) my own past method of handling such outlandish vendor FUD claims was to number and catalogue each of their claims for comparison with those they would make next year and also to invariably demand near-term proof in a lab or pilot situation. Several vendors soon tired of protracted, indeed almost constant, lab proof sessions and thus began to select their vapourware claims a bit more carefully.
The complementary trends of blade servers and organic computing will gain considerable momentum and by year’s end the most progressive public-sector IT shops will have clear roadmaps in place to migrate their principal data centres to this paradigm. Those that do not will be behind the power curve by early 2007.
Despite the often limpid IT services market here in Canada, barring a major slowdown in the U.S. economy, there will again be a draw on a growing number of Canadian IT professionals back into that market.
For example, when you do the conversions, a senior project manager can already earn 30 to 50 per cent more in several key U.S. markets than he or she can here. If that differential continues for long, the talent drain of the dot-com era will resume.
Even in the public sector, where employees and long-term contractors tend to look three times before they leap, that could lead to more shortages in key areas. Convergence of computers and entertainment systems in the home will finally reach the stage that ultra-large screens begin to give rise to family reading or resource rooms with screens of sufficient size and resolution as to be viable newspaper substitutes.
Several major U.S. newspapers are already preparing for the advent of the integrated media room in the home.
The environmental savings for a newspaper like the LA Times of cutting daily newsprint distribution by just 10 per cent are immense.
If this trend becomes real, e-government planners who have recently been trying to bring the Web to BlackBerries may have precisely the opposite challenge.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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