UK's e-gov initiatives put SOAs to the test

Service-oriented architectures help the UK take the lead in e-government .

When commentators compare France to the UK, they joke about the state of British railways or the strength of the French unions. Yet it is also interesting to note the different approaches taken by the two countries on e-government and how the UK has taken the lead in this domain.

The main reasons for this are that the political will is there and that, because of the structural weaknesses in the UK public services, e-government can bring processing costs down, increase response times and improve the service to citizens.

The UK's lead has come about through the inspired and innovative approach that is being taken towards the technology infrastructure. Most prominently is the increasing adoption of service-oriented architectures.

Without doubt service-oriented architectures could be dismissed as yet more marketing jargon. However, their aim is worth considering.

Service-oriented architectures are concerned with putting in place a flexible IT architecture that allows an organisation to respond rapidly to change and to provide transparency and traceability of change in terms of processes and policies. With a service-oriented architecture, the organisation will be able to define, implement and audit - in real time - processes and policies, from scratch or incrementally.

So how can a service-oriented architecture achieve that? The key idea is one of approach: business processes and policies, the dynamic parts of an organisation that are subject to change, should be implemented separately and loosely coupled with the business services that support them.

Now technologies are available to deliver this with the convergence of enterprise application integration, workflow and business process management and the increasing success of the business rules management system as a method of implementing and automating rules-based policies.

The public sector is one of the early adopters of service-oriented architectures. Two years ago the then e-envoy, Andrew Pinder, in a visionary meeting with analyst firm Gartner, hinted at the importance of business rules and the need for information to be lifted out of back-office silos and made more dynamically accessible. Pinder may not have been referring to service-oriented architectures directly, but it was clearly a prerequisite for the coming e-government initiatives.

Recent public sector projects highlight this approach. In the National Assembly for Wales system for the distribution of more than £160m in EU subsidies to Welsh farmers, business process management and business rules were used on a service-oriented architecture. The patient records database for the NHS national programme for IT could be the largest service-oriented architecture implementation in the world.

So whether you believe the service-oriented architecture is over-hyped or not, it is having a radical impact on the UK public sector. If you are looking for the heart of the revolution, then this is where you will find it.

Christophe Gasc is UK managing director of ILOG

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