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Government deployments play up SharePoint pros and cons

SharePoint is widely used in the public sector, and those deployments often emphasize the strengths and weaknesses of the platform.

The collaboration and content management features of SharePoint have made the platform an industry leader in the business world, but it's also widely used in government.

The unique conditions of the public sector generally ensure that SharePoint deployments are more necessary -- and more precarious -- than anywhere else. As such, government usage often provides strong examples of SharePoint pros and cons.  

There are thousands of city, state and federal SharePoint deployments in the United States, and they tended to emerge in the same way: not through careful, deliberate planning, design and deployment, but rapidly and spontaneously -- and out of sheer necessity. Most deployments of this sort have become indispensable, sustained by sheer utility and institutional momentum.

Of course, this is true of countless nongovernment SharePoint deployments as well, but one can argue that the requirements of public service amplify SharePoint pros and cons far beyond the norm. Those requirements exist in greater magnitude in government than in business, and within a workforce of different mind-set.


"Because the law requires it" has great force in commercial industry and public service, but there is simply more compliance to be done in government, where conformity to a common process is mandated not just by policy or executive whim, but by law.

Ensuring compliance is a common theme in city- and state-level SharePoint deployments, where the archiving of aging records and files can be handled at the user level, without IT getting involved. Moreover, absent a formal SharePoint administrator policy on  lifecycle management of content, a user can set up records archiving under the organization's blanket backup and recovery service level-agreement (SLA), and demonstrate compliance to the satisfaction of most auditors with relative ease.

Is this the best way to achieve legal compliance in content management? No; but it works well enough that it happens all the time. SharePoint is, in any case, an excellent platform for managing content under compliance rules, but a more savvy approach is leveraging its ability to archive unused -- but compliance-burdened -- content in external storage, which is managed through the SharePoint interface. This way, compliance can be easily implemented, without compromising performance of the more costly CMS storage resources of SharePoint.

The trophy case

Those who choose careers in government service often do so at the expense of salary and prestige they might otherwise accumulate in the private sector. Many have an admirable commitment to making a difference in their city or state, versus the more market-focused concerns of the typical corporation. But because this often leaves career public servants with less to show for their efforts, they may cling much harder to accomplishments that can serve as trophies -- i.e., legacy systems and past innovations for information handling and process.

SharePoint exists to put information handling and process directly into the hands of such innovators, of course -- but that makes it all the easier to replace something old with something new. While a territorial protectiveness over data and the user interface it lives behind can be found in any organization, government often has less top-down pressure to keep technology current -- so, that protective impulse can sometimes stand in the path of change.

In this dynamic, however, SharePoint can solve the very problem it enables. The response to the public servant who is slow to change is simple; letting go of personal legacies is easier when the establishment of new ones is so convenient. Establishing an atmosphere receptive to innovation, where perpetual change is a cultivated expectation and all solutions are viewed as tentative, can not only lessen resistance to change, but lead to greater efficiency when  implementing it.

Sprawling, ungoverned, undocumented

One clear difference that emerges from government's tendency to create information systems out of need and on the fly is that those systems -- being "rogue" processes -- mostly live under the radar. There are several negative consequences to this, which are common to SharePoint, but happen more often in government environments.

The first is "sprawl," which is what happens to a SharePoint platform when users move their previously unmanaged content into SharePoint randomly, with no attention to how it's structured when uploaded. This gobbles up expensive storage and makes the content harder to find than it was to begin with.

This sprawl is enabled by poor governance -- a lack of standards shared across divisions, cabinets and agencies. When there is no global oversight in SharePoint's use, users routinely substitute one rogue application for another on the more expensive SharePoint platform, making matters worse, not better.

Rogue systems also tend to go undocumented. When no one's really in charge, there's no one capturing the institutional knowledge and wisdom behind the content and its use. This is a typical failing of government IT, but SharePoint amplifies it: When an individual who understands a body of data moves on, the ability to manage that data goes with them and SharePoint can't help.

App proliferation

A final distinction between commercial industry and government is institutional complexity. Government tends to support more offices and departments with fewer workers, leading to the odd circumstance of SharePoint deployments that have far more sites with far more users than is typically found in a commercial enterprise.

What's the problem here? Support, for one; a government organization is not likely to employ any more SharePoint support personnel than a commercial one. More likely, there are fewer support people, who have to cover far more territory, application-wise.

And yet, despite a proliferation of homegrown apps, SharePoint is still a sensible choice, given government's limited resources. It can support several dozen custom applications within a single administrative model, provides a single security model, a single DR and backup model, and a common infrastructure, countering the complexity of app maintenance with greatly simplified platform support.

More can be done with less, and that's what public service needs to be about.

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