Feds Apply IT Lessons

Government pushes interagency data sharing in wake of attacks.

The federal government is taking the lessons learned in private-sector business-to-business systems integration and applying it to its own IT initiatives.

Because of the size and scope of the projects under way, private industry may learn a thing or two if the government can pull off its aggressive integration plans.

Several agencies, notably the Office of Management and Budget, have recognized for some time the need for better interdepartment information sharing, but last Septembers terrorist attacks have added urgency to such efforts. The Office of Homeland Security, in particular, is working with Congress and the OMB to enable federal, state and local agencies to share information regarding homeland security, no mean feat by any standard.

A central effort under way is the creation of a Federal Enterprise Architecture, which Steve Cooper, CIO for the Office of Homeland Security, is establishing with the help of federal-level CIOs, Congress and the OMB. The Enterprise Architecture is a mandate whereby every cabinet-level agency has been directed to develop an IT architecture that has governmentwide interoperability as a goal, according to Cooper, in Washington.

The group of CIOs working on the project has been gathered from departments that would be brought together, should President Bushs plan to make the Office of Homeland Security a Cabinet-level office come to pass.

Cooper realizes that creating a standard architecture across the current pell-mell IT infrastructure will be a difficult task and not just because of technology.

"One of the main drivers of doing an architecture is, if you left it up to people, you bring in a little subjectivity or emotion," said Cooper. "By taking an architecture approach, we can look at fulfilling the processes, and we can take the emotion out of it."

The biggest challenge to the Homeland Security offices integration efforts, according to Ray Donahue, director for homeland security at systems integrator Antion Corp., is the vast number of systems developed independently by various contractors that would have to be connected.

The other key issue, said Jeff Flading, vice president of Antions Fairfax, Va., solutions center, is a lack of data description standards.

"We find this many times in supporting Department of Defense structures," said Flading. "Truck doesnt mean the same thing in the Navy as it does in the Marines. And you add the two amounts of trucks together, and you get something different than what you thought. All these things have to mean the same thing, or you have to know what the aliases are. Translation is important."

Even when the data is there, it is not always available because of security issues. "Its not just access to information—the very best information our country has is not often available," said Flading. "So you have to figure out how to provide information without telling where [it is]."

Rep. Tom Davis, R-Va., has sponsored legislation to encourage the Federal Enterprise Architecture. But Davis, chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Technology and Procurement Policy Subcommittee, said he believes that any law needs to provide flexibility in creating standards.

"These pieces of legislation dont mandate standards—rather, they focus on improving performance in agencies," said Davis, in Washington. "The use of standards must be decided carefully and needs to be flexible, as we have seen the difficulty the government has in adapting to a changing environment."

"Its not all technology hurdles; there are some process hurdles," said Antions Donahue. "You have agencies and states that do things differently and maybe approach them differently. The more we can have a common form of processing ... the more you can get a common standard."

Donahue, a veteran of the Defense Department, said interagency coordination is not new. The issue now is that the Office of Homeland Security is looking at nontraditional solutions that range from domestic and international intelligence gathering all the way to health and human services at the state and local levels.

CIOs representing several state governments would welcome new approaches to coordinating state and federal IT integration projects. At a hearing of Davis subcommittee last week, Aldona Valicenti, CIO of the commonwealth of Kentucky, said Congress needs to restructure the APD (Advanced Planning Document) process, by which states get approval for spending federal funds on IT infrastructure programs.

"Many states are initiating innovative approaches to integrating the front end. ... However, the APD process is currently as much an obstacle as a facilitator in the implementation of integrated systems," Valicenti said.

"Id say the problem of [integrating IT systems] is both harder and easier than a private-sector integration," said Steven Aftergood, an analyst at the Federation of American Scientists, a Washington-based think tank studying national security policy. "It is harder because government information systems are typically one to many generations behind state of the art."

Aftergood said interagency integration is easier simply because the technology at many government agencies is so antiquated that upgrading to current off-the-shelf software would go a long way.

But Kentuckys Valicenti said more needs to be done before even those steps can be taken.

"Since [intergovernmental] integration is often the very purpose of modernizing the IT systems for these programs, the result [of the current bureaucracy] is that states either choose not to modernize or do so only with state funds," Valicenti said.

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