A Fort Knox for Data - Page 2

Baby Steps Toward Federal Enterprise Architecture
Privacy advocates, however, can rest easy for now. The government is in no position to create such a data warehouse, experts say, either politically or technologically. The government doesnt have common data definitions for items as mundane as the "right" way to enter names in a database.

But baby steps are being taken. An effort dubbed the Federal Enterprise Architecture (FEA) is seen as the foundation for e-government. Started in February 2002 and overseen by the White Houses Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the FEA is an attempt to move agencies to a common architecture that will allow them to share information. At the base of the FEA are technical models designed to clarify business processes—awarding housing grants or turning around a tax return—and establishing performance metrics. But the specifics of what constitutes data, how to standardize it and how to share it electronically have not been addressed. The General Accounting Office (GAO) says such a model is expected early this year.

According to a December 2003 GAO report, only one federal office, the Office of the President, has reached the highest level of maturity under the FEA. To be labeled Stage 1 maturity by the GAO, an agency only has to acknowledge the FEA initiative. Later stages require written policies, systems built using FEA and performance measurements.

Expected to lead the way is the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), a combination of 22 agencies including U.S. Customs, the Federal Emergency Management Agency and five agencies that will analyze information from other agencies. Part of the mission of the 27-month-old DHS is to "coordinate efforts for collection and analysis of information within the United States regarding threats of terrorism."

Several recent federal initiatives revolve around information systems. Earlier this month, for example, the DHS launched a program called US-VISIT, which requires that most foreign visitors traveling to the U.S. on a visa have their two index fingers scanned and a digital photograph taken at a port of entry.

Separately, the U.S. Department of Agriculture finally addressed tracking individual cows via tagging and information sharing after a case of Mad Cow disease was announced in December. But whether these moves represent the beginning of proactive information sharing remains to be seen. Could the yet-to-be-built cattle-tracking system ultimately connect to a federal database that could flag two seemingly unconnected events—a person with terrorist ties working at a cattle ranch and pathogens introduced to the food supply? Not today. And perhaps not ever.

In the meantime, experts suggest a three-step plan for taking control of federal data and increasing the effectiveness of wars on terror, disease, drugs, and other social ills:


"One of the reasons for the struggle is there is no federal CIO in the way we think of one in the corporate world," says Allen Shay, president of NCR Government Systems Corp.s Teradata division. The closest thing the federal government has to a chief information officer is Karen Evans, administrator for e-government and information technology at the OMB. Evans and the OMB are responsible for tracking agencies progress toward implementing the FEA and can reject budgets that dont comply with enterprise architectures, but the OMB cant penalize for non-compliance. A new cabinet-level office would be empowered to force compliance. The Secretary of Information Management would also be responsible for standardizing technology across agencies.

For example, each agency has its own system for human resources, grant management and accounts payable and receivable. This CIO could standardize processes or even consolidate systems to save taxpayer money. Under this executive, criteria would be set for systems, but it would be up to the agency to figure out how to meet those criteria.

John, however, sees challenges. For starters, a federal CIO would encounter fierce turf wars. John also questioned whether this executive might have too much power. Another issue is figuring out where to put this executive in the government hierarchy.

"I dont think you could house it in any one agency," says John. "I would argue [that] over time, information is a more critical resource for the welfare of the country."

In any case, the success or failure of this executive would depend more on management skill than technology savvy. "Ultimately, you have to influence people," says John. "Im not sure how many people can get their minds around the whole."

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