Q&A: Microsoft Steps Up Efforts to Address the Unique Needs of Government and Education

Editors’ Note, April 20, 2004:
As originally published, this article incorrectly characterized Microsoft’s new U.S. Public Sector business group as a business unit. In Microsoft’s organization, the term

business unit

describes the divisions of the company’s core businesses (currently seven).

WASHINGTON, D.C, April 20, 2004 — Considering the challenges citizens and their governments face every day — school funding, healthcare and unemployment, to name a few — the promise of integrated computer systems delivering better and improved public services is rarely a high profile issue. Yet in that very promise of up-to-date and integrated IT infrastructure lie many promising solutions to help governments and educational institutions address those broader challenges that are top of mind public concerns.

Linda Zecher, Vice President, Microsoft U.S. Public Sector group

Microsoft recently formed a new business group, called Microsoft U.S. Public Sector, to better work with the public sector and to strengthen customer and partner outreach in the education and government markets. As part of the move, the company named Linda Zecher vice president of the Washington, D.C.-based business group.

PressPass spoke to Zecher to learn more about why Microsoft formed U.S. Public Sector and how the company plans to work more closely with and address the technology needs of the government and education community.

PressPass: How are the challenges that the public sector faces today different from the private sector?

Zecher: One of the biggest challenges that today’s public-sector organizations face is that they have many disparate, antiquated systems — databases and libraries of information that have accrued over the years and simply don’t communicate with one another. Given the scope of government and education, and the breadth of services they provide, it isn’t at all surprising.

In the past, a government organization such as a social-services agency might not have considered the importance of seamlessly communicating at every level with other government agencies — for example, healthcare organizations, in order to improve the delivery of services they provide. So across public sector these systems have grown up quite nicely in their own in silos. Individually they’ve been able to perform their single mission; what they’ve been lacking is the ability to deliver comprehensive public services across the board in a cost-efficient manner. While there’s recognition that interoperability and the collaboration it affords could bring great benefit, bringing together these disparate systems in the public sector is particularly challenging.

One example is the work we’ve done with the New York’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) to create a an Internet-based Health Alert Network (HAN) that would allow them to connect public health officials at DOHMH with providers of healthcare and response services all over the community. Through our partners, and using Microsoft SharePoint, we delivered an extranet portal solution that allows users to immediately reach four primary service areas, including health alerts, a document library, bulletin boards and online conferencing. Even outside of crisis situations, providing these types of resources over the Internet allows DOHMH to maximize the value of its information assets while allowing its staff to focus on examining health issues and developing knowledge rather than on distributing it.

In the private sector, chief information officers can drive interoperability by mapping to corporate initiatives that call for tight integration across organizational business units and by demonstrating the direct or indirect impact on profitability. For the public sector, it is a very different situation. The reality for our government and education organizations is that changes in administrations constantly shift priorities, and budget concerns heighten the impact of every decision. As a result, public sector officials are always searching for solutions that benefit citizens and the communities they serve immediately — they want to fix the schools, fix the potholes, fix the healthcare system–but the role an updated IT infrastructure can play is not always clear.

Our job in Microsoft’s Public Sector group is to understand and take into account all these variables, listen carefully to what the end goal of the customer is, and work with our partners to deliver cost-effective and efficient technology solutions that address specific needs of a public sector organization, whether K-12 or higher education, or a local, state or federal government agency. What we’re increasingly seeing is that elected officials and school administrators understand the power that technology can bring to their unique missions, and they’re finding innovative ways to support new technology initiatives. By integrating information technology and streamlining the way these groups deliver their services, both sides of the equation can win: Taxpayers will pay less for better services, and government and education can deliver on their promises.

PressPass: How do you and Microsoft hope to address those challenges?

Zecher: In the past few years, we’ve stepped up our efforts to align our technology solutions, as well as our partners’ solutions, to better meet the unique requirements of government and education customers. Like any specialized or vertical industry, the public sector has its own unique set of requirements. It needs different marketing and selling models; the appropriate partner expertise; and, most importantly, people who understand the public sector environment.

By forming the U.S. Public Sector division, Microsoft is extending its commitment to education and government by becoming more effective in delivering solutions that align and support technology initiatives within the public sector. To do this, we’ve created a team of technology evangelists with expertise in particular domains of the public sector, such as defense, transportation, education, healthcare, justice and public safety, as well as tax and revenue. We have also created a public sector solutions and programs group, whose primary goal is to pinpoint which solutions and best practices in one domain of the public sector could potentially apply to another.

PressPass: Why is Microsoft combining government and education into one business group? Doesn’t each sector have very different technology challenges and requirements?

Zecher: There is an opportunity, that often goes unnoticed, to address the synergy between government and education. Microsoft views government and education under a single public sector umbrella so that it can facilitate connections and share best practices between them.

For example, our transportation solutions in state and local government could be applicable to K-12 transportation programs, and many of our education programs could easily be adopted as part of education solutions in the U.S. prison system. In healthcare, the state hospitals can learn from federal Veterans Administration hospitals, and also teaching hospitals that are part of a larger educational institution. So there are many areas like that in which there is crossover between government and education.

By grouping government and education, we can better focus on how to help the two groups collaborate, to provide additional services, and to leverage specific technology solutions that work equally well in each domain. For example, with many higher-education institutions operated and funded by state government, and with K-12 public schools deeply affected by state budgets, having a team that understands the needs of both the government official and school administrator enables Microsoft to better address the economic and accountability imperatives.

Microsoft is also very committed to honoring the unique challenges and requirements of each these domains. While it may be possible to leverage some of the same technology solutions across both areas of the public sector, how these solutions are implemented and adapted within the different domains of government and education is unique. We’ve structured U.S. Public Sector to include separate business groups for federal government, state government, local government and education, as well as solution teams, marketing teams and partner teams that intersect with those groups. By structuring the business group so that each of the groups within government and education is its own entity, we plan to effectively address the individuality of the approach that those sectors need.

PressPass: What kinds of technology initiatives does Microsoft have underway that are geared specifically to the public sector?

Zecher: In education, we’ve been looking at ways in which we can collaborate with students, teachers, school systems and other technology companies to provide better platforms for children to learn.

For example, last fall we began working on a year-long pilot project with two companies, Hewlett-Packard and Holt, Rinehart and Winston, to gauge how well students learn, using a Tablet PC and a Web-based curriculum. Throughout the school year, students at Ocoee Middle School in Ocoee, Fla., have been using wireless Tablet PCs with Internet access to a Holt Online Learning curriculum and a host of Microsoft tools to take handwritten notes, make and share journal entries, and electronically complete exercises, homework assignments and tests. At the end of the year, the results will be evaluated on a number of fronts, including improvements in learning, teachers’ impressions of the impact on their teaching, students’ level of engagement, and the nuts and bolts of successfully integrating the technology into the school’s infrastructure with a minimal need for ongoing maintenance and support.

In government, we have a variety of initiatives underway — mobility solutions in defense and law enforcement and tax solutions for states, as well as solutions in healthcare, transportation and homeland security, to name just a few. One area we’re seeing a lot of momentum is in the “integrated justice information-system” space. Police, fire, emergency response, courts, and prison systems all have a unique opportunity to integrate their systems in ways they have only recently begun to realize. The result is clearly benefiting citizens because these organizations are becoming more effective. They’re allowing law enforcement to concentrate on getting the bad guys instead of chasing down paperwork.

For instance, we recently worked with the state of Alabama to deliver a justice-information system designed to unify the state’s vast data resources — such as the Motor Vehicle Department, court, and correctional facility records — which were separately hosted and difficult for remote users to search. Because the state couldn’t afford to centralize all of its 21 million citizen records in a single storage location, it needed a solution that would unify the records directly from data sources located throughout the state. Using Microsoft’s .NET framework to enable back-end data aggregation, the new system provides a variety of centralized services, including IT systems administration, to some 4,500 law-enforcement and justice users at a cost that is three to five times lower than similar systems.

Now, imagine that kind of thinking being applied to health and human services organizations, or to agencies charged with revenue-gathering; or to federal agencies charged with the homeland security mission. Microsoft is working with partners very closely to help government access and disseminate information to better meet its various missions. The interesting thing is, using the Microsoft .NET Framework, these agencies can often achieve these efficiencies using technology they already own.

PressPass: Does Microsoft have plans in place to support public sectors outside the United States as well?

Zecher: Just after establishing the U.S. Public Sector, Microsoft also created the Global Public Sector umbrella, of which the U.S. Public Sector is a part. In creating the global division, Microsoft is recognizing that governments around the world, while unique in many ways, also face many of the same technology challenges, such as integration and interoperability among the various branches of government and education. We hope that by creating this global division we send a strong message that Microsoft is committed to helping public sectors all over the world solve their biggest challenges.

As an example of this commitment, Microsoft announced the Partners in Learning program last fall. The goal of the program is to deliver information and communication-technology skills training, tailored curriculum development, technical support, and research funds and resources to students and teachers worldwide. While the goal of the program is global, the implementations are tailored to address local circumstances. Partners in Learning represents a significant investment of software and more than $250 million (U.S.) in cash grants worldwide over the next five years.

PressPass: What key technologies are public-sector organizations looking to implement over the next few years, and how do you envision the U.S. Public Sector business group will help?

Zecher: I think technologies that integrate disparate systems and provide real collaboration opportunities will continue to play a dominant role in the public sector in the near future, such as our K-12 Learning Management Platform, Microsoft Class Server. Schools can now combine teaching resources such as curriculum content, assessment data and instructional material that used to exist in multiple places and can now be accessed from any computer. Organizations will be replacing some systems while building on others as they look to assemble frameworks that will better manage a school’s grading system or provide key data access to law enforcement officials. The real challenge will be to balance these initiatives against the constraints of IT budgets.

Microsoft has comprehensive technology solutions to help the public sector attain these goals–the Microsoft .NET architecture, Exchange, the Windows platform and Office are key differentiators in the areas of integration and collaboration and allow us to offer the variety of solutions our customers are asking for. Moving forward, U.S. Public Sector will continue to expand its programs and work aggressively to sustain long-term relationships with government leaders to let them know how we can support them and how these solutions can help them drive their own initiatives. In addition, we plan to continue to foster our relationships with our technology partners in developing solutions designed to specifically address government and education, such as tax-filing solutions at the state level or monitoring and addressing student achievement for K-12 institutions. We are continually looking at ways we can offer more solutions for this market in areas where they need our help.

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