The Microsoft Government Portal explained

And MSN and bCentral as public services...

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The smart choice: opportunity from uncertainty

It's official - Microsoft owns the UK's Government Gateway. This will not come as a surprise to Register readers, who were tipped off last August that the government was poised to license IP relating to the Gateway to Microsoft "for a song," but it did shock people attending a recent govtalk (a Gateway-related discussion group) meeting when a Cabinet Office rep blurted it out.

Microsoft had been granted ownership of the Gateway, he said somewhat inaccurately, back in September, and it had been "widely reported in the press" at the time. Flattering as it is for The Register to have its reports described as wide, broad deep or whatever, we think not; if this deal was ever formally announced, it was formally announced somewhere deeply obscure.

Jason Kitcat of the Free e-Democracy Project was at the meeting, and followed up with the Cabinet Office, obtaining this statement:

"The replication deal is a licence agreement that allows Microsoft to commercially exploit our Intellectual Property Rights (IPR.) We grant Microsoft the licence and receive royalties from any sales. It is not a partnership agreement or joint venture with Microsoft.

"The UK Government is leading the world in innovative electronic transactions and we are aware that there is considerable international interest in the Gateway. The replication agreement offers the opportunity to share our experience of developing this groundbreaking means of service delivery. As set out in the 'Wider Markets Initiative', the government should take advantage of its asset to recoup the costs of the original investment.

"The replication agreement presents the government with the opportunity to gain recognition for the precedent that it has created in the world of electronic commerce."

That would appear to mean that uk.gov received no money for the IP, which includes authentication and management tools, and an authenticated transaction server, and has no control over what Microsoft does with it. Possibly no control over what Microsoft does with it on the UK's "own" site. In exchange it will receive fee payments as and when Microsoft succeeds in selling the technology on.

Microsoft's involvement in the Government Gateway was famously announced, you'll recall, at last year's Microsoft Government Leaders Conference in Seattle. By a miraculous coincidence, Government Leaders Conference 2002 is taking place this very week, and by an even more miraculous coincidence, Microsoft today posted material relating to its e-Government strategy here. In the Word format pioneered by the UK E-Envoy's office, of course.

Both documents are instructive, E-Government Strategy particularly so. It describes three Microsoft initiatives which it claims were launched in April 2000 (if they were, the launch was again extremely quiet). These are: the Electronic Government Framework (EGF), the Government Portal, and Digital Communities.

The Microsoft Government Portal is intended "to encompass the whole Government Service Network. Through the Government Portal, the public sector is seen as an integrated, seamless whole rather than a raft of offices and departments. From a single point of access, citizens are provided easy-to-use and personalized services, transactions,information, opinion polls and even e-voting." Sound familiar? Strangely, however, the UK Government Gateway that was such a pioneering rave last year doesn't get mentioned once.

Now, the next bit is extremely interesting:

"The Government Portal is a non-exclusive business model that integrates both internal and external Web sites. Public (Yahoo, AOL, MSN) and special interest portals (like bCentral, Vertical Net) are eager to provide maximum services to their users and it is in government's interest to reach their citizens through as many service provider channels as possible. So to ensure a citizen-centric approach, rather than deal solely with one company, governments must publish the technical requirements for conducting government transactions. Then anybody who meets certain quality service levels should be allowed to provide a public service. Public service provider channels can be a government agency, but they can also be a bank, or a sports store that sells fishing licenses, or a public portal such as Microsoft's MSN and bCentral that support transactions for citizen and business services."

MSN and bCentral as public services, presented via the Government Gateway? If you felt this was the continuation of Hailstorm by other means you would not be wrong.

"Through MSN, Microsoft supports citizens' communications with government by enabling them to inform a change of address when they move house and by giving them the opportunity to register to vote. With bCentral, Microsoft offers one of the most successful online forums for businesses and there are opportunities to partner with government by linking bCentral and the Government Portal to offer regulation fulfillment and compliance services to businesses.

"Microsoft has been designing a Government Portal Framework over the last year based on the scenario just described. This framework is available to Microsoft's government customers and partners interested to implement portals. Microsoft will properly maintain and update the portal framework, introducing additional components provided by Microsoft partners like Independent Software Vendors. Many System Integrators are already adopting this framework as a best practice in deployment of Government Portals."

We'll skip Digital Communities, which seems like us to be vapid claptrap anyway, and reverse to the Electronic Government Framework, which has particular relevance to the implementation of the Government Gateway in the UK. "The Electronic Government Framework (EGF) enables dissimilar systems and applications to communicate effectively, allowing governments to achieve their e-government objectives for integrated services. It is an open initiative in which government customers and the IT industry works together to design the specifications required to integrate and simplify selected business cases. EGF meets the technical challenges of exchanging information through the introduction of truly open standards and widely adopted technologies that will be reusable and sharable by design."

"...A set of guidelines defines how to publish information schemas in XML and how to use XML messages to easily integrate software programs in order to build rich new e-government solutions. The schemas, service specifications, and process change outcomes are made available to all EGF members to share best practice."

This would appear to suggest that interoperability is about making your systems work with the Microsoft Government Portal, and that in order to get the information for this you need some form of EGF membership.

The EGF itself however has particular importance because, although the two things Microsoft and the UK's E-Envoy's Office bash on about most are providing services to citizens and encouraging citizens to use them, the real killer is interoperability between government departments. These all have their own computer systems, and as part of the grand e-Government project they're going to have to talk to one another.

In the UK this is, according to Register civil service sources, something that has yet to be invented. "The Gateway was designed to be unidirectional, so at the moment the only way one government department can communicate with another is via a web page," says one. This is intended to be fixed over the summer, but our sources also question Microsoft's software's fitness for the job, and claim the cost burden will fall heavily on government departments, agencies and local government because of this.

"It needs Biztalk Server and SQL Server. You've got 480 local governments and 150 government agencies, so you can multiply that out. It's actually a standard application integration problem, a middleware problem, but Microsoft doesn't have middleware, so it's forcing Biztalk to do the job instead. That's a six digit number, whereas MQSeries or Oracle would be four digit number, and would do the job." ®

Related stories:
E-Envoy and team schmooze Seattle with MS again
e-Envoy to speak at MS-sponsored Digital UK summit

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