OASIS: making e-government work more effectively

Open standards are crucial, says CEO

Open standards are crucial to e-government, says Patrick Gannon, president and chief executive of OASIS (Organisation for the Advancement of Structured Information Standards).

They make the various government agencies’ computer systems interoperable when it comes to catering to outside companies and citizens, who use a variety of computer equipment, he says.

Gannon spoke to Computerworld last week, while on a flying visit here en route to an OASIS open standards conference being held in Sydney.

OASIS, which was founded 13 years ago, aims to both refine and popularise standard information formats, as well as frameworks for information transfer. Some of these pertain to the peculiarities of certain vertical industries and professions.

“[For example] we have committees focused on the legal community — how to submit information to court [and] how to formalise a contract electronically.”

Other committees are busy formulating generic document and message formats, based on established standards such as XML and SGML.

Many governments are pretty interested in establishing such standards, says Gannon. However, they often ask for a “more de jure (based on law) recognition” than that conferred by an unofficial body like OASIS. “[In such cases] we submit the standards developed by our members to an official body like the International Standards Organisation,” says Gannon.

Two of the NZ State Services Commission’s recently developed authentication standards — in security services and data formats — are, in fact, sub-sets of OASIS standards. Both OASIS-developed standards have been submitted to the International Telecommunications Union.

“We don’t have to fight battles over open standards, but we often need to educate people who might not find the benefits intuitively obvious. We can point to practical scenarios where there has been a real payback from using such standards,” says Gannon.

Most OECD countries are receptive to the open standards message, but in smaller and less advanced nations “we sometimes come across a preference for using whatever the predominant vendor provides, ‘because they’re good guys and they’ve never let us down’.” Then, when a second vendor makes its presence felt in the market, the community looks at the interface problems between the two “and discovers what they’re using is not as flexible as they thought it was.”

Another argument OASIS faces is: “Standards are good, but they take too long to develop [and] by the time they come out they no longer meet our needs.”

OASIS deals with this argument by “making sure we get more of the players at the table up-front. Governments can identify where the problems are — perhaps with privacy or security — under their legislation. We then do proofs of concept, getting the technicians involved early.”

The open source community often then comes in and does a quick development of experimental tools and, within quite a short time, “we end up with something that meets the business requirements and, most important, is implementable,” says Gannon.

But open standards are not synonymous with open source, he adds.

Governments are also important when it comes to spreading the open standards message. In “business-to-government” dealings, such as government-agency procurement, an agency that insists on open standards might well encourage a supplier to use the same standards in its dealings with other clients, says Gannon.

“Electronic tax payment, for example, makes both the tax department and business more efficient, so why shouldn’t business take the same standards to [use with] payments elsewhere?”

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