GAO says XML not ready for extensive government use

XML, the data exchange standard that's being deployed by federal agencies to improve interoperability, isn't a mature standard. And without centralized leadership, XML implementations by various agencies could actually hurt the interoperability of government systems, the U.S. General Accounting Office said in a report released Friday.

The GAO warned that unless the President's Office of Management Budget improves XML adoption planning, the government could end up with XML implementations that defeat a key goal of the Bush administration's proposed US$52 billion federal IT budget -- improving the ability of federal government's vast data network to interoperate.

The GAO did say that the XML standard has potential. It can, for example, improve the ability of law enforcement agencies to identify and retrieve information about criminal suspects from local, state and federal databases.

But while the XML technical standards are already in place to accomplish that, the GAO said business standards aren't "as mature" and could complicate implementation.

Those XML business standards, the GAO said, include identifying potential business partners for transactions, exchanging precise technical information about the nature of proposed transactions, and executing transactions in a formal, legally-binding manner.

The absence of a complete set of XML standards poses potential development pitfalls "that could limit its potential to facilitate broad information exchange or adversely affect interoperability," the agency said. The lack of complete standards could prompt agencies to develop their own data definitions and proprietary extensions and make changes that could hurt system security.

The strong leadership approach advocated by the GAO isn't too dissimilar from what occurs in the private sector, said Rob Perry, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston. In specific industries, large companies such as an automobile maker often mandate XML standards for business partners. "Somebody in the government has to say É this is the format that we're going to use," he said.

The GAO, Congress' watchdog agency, prepared the report at the request of Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), the chairman of the Committee of Governmental Affairs. The committee wants to determine whether XML is ready for governmentwide implementation.

A key goal of the Bush administration's federal IT budget for next fiscal year is to unify hundreds of redundant government computer systems across agencies that act as islands of automation. This lack of automation has held back productivity gains, according to the administration.

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