Try this plan to pilot new systems

Mike Hale
Every government information technology manager faces the challenge of justifying emerging technologies to program managers and bean counters. You can't just show them an article in the latest issue of GCN about this or that new technology and obtain funding.

Few have the time or staff to keep leading-edge pilot projects on the front burner as a means of demonstrating their benefits to productivity or functionality.

On the other hand, vendors hawking exciting new technologies are frustrated at not being able to show their capabilities to government customers.

Pilot projects in which vendors foot the bill offer a way for them to show, and agencies to investigate, new technologies, all within the purchasing laws of the jurisdiction.

In the early 1990s, open systems consortiums emerged. They offered components of large enterprises such as state governments the opportunity to gain a much higher degree of systems interoperability than was available to proprietary stovepipe systems. In Florida, companies such as Digital Equipment Corp. and IBM Corp. were anxious to participate in tests of the open standards.

One particular application was swapping public records on Florida corporations among agencies'a capability state agencies found useful.

Vendors donated hardware, software and development staff for two months to establish a network, develop the data-sharing application and demonstrate interoperability to agency managers. These would-be contractors understood the marketing value of their limited investment.

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Today, hardly a day goes by without some new technology standard emerging that would lend itself to such an approach. Technologies such as Extensible Markup Language, digital signatures and public-key infrastructures are ripe for such collaborative pilots. You should consider offering the opportunity to conduct no-cost pilots to all vendors.

Will no one respond because there is no money involved? That hasn't been my experience. Or will more vendors respond than you can accommodate? I haven't found this to be the case either.

One thing you can be certain of: If you put out an invitation to bid, you'll have a ready-made research program.

In 1997, Georgia put out a no-cost request for proposals to set up proof-of-concept demonstrations for digital signature technology. The RFP resulted in two pilot projects and two white papers that have been valuable in the state's planning.

State governments, unlike the federal government, seldom budget dedicated R&D dollars. We go from planning to funding to implementation, with little opportunity for research.

Meanwhile, vendors devote billions to R&D yet are frustrated to have so little opportunity to show off what they can do'often because of rigid government procurement laws. This idea of no-cost bids for pilot projects may bridge this gap.

Mike Hale recently left his post as chief information officer of Georgia for an industry IT job. He previously was executive director of Florida's Information Resource Commission, and he is a retired Army colonel.

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