HHS on consolidation track

The Department of Health and Human Services is embarking on a departmentwide information technology consolidation that will merge e-mail systems, networks and infrastructure services.

The overhaul is expected to bring consistency to support services and ultimately save the department money, HHS chief information officer Melissa Chapman said.

"In HHS, IT started an office at a time, literally," she said. "E-mail cropped up here and there in a disorganized way. Help-desk services cropped up similarly across the department."

Department officials recognized the need to streamline services such as call centers, network operations, software support, and desktop acquisition and support, Chapman said. "We created a few specific initiatives designed to consolidate those services, the staff and the processes around those services," she said.

"What companies and organizations are trying to do is strip out the redundancy and complexity in their IT systems," said Ted Schadler, analyst for Forrester Research Inc. "They've got 10 or 15 years of accumulated technology."

The first major piece of the revamp is merging more than 50 infrastructure service providers into six. Each of the department's five main operating divisions — the Food and Drug Administration, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institutes of Health, Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and the Indian Health Service — has consolidated its IT services units into one organization apiece.

Because of the size of those components, they require independent infrastructures rather than one shared, departmentwide organization.

The remaining eight smaller divisions will share a consolidated service. "The infrastructure services are going to be provided by a single IT service center at the department level," Chapman said.

HHS officials opted for six providers, rather than one, so the effort wouldn't overwhelm the department, Chapman said. "We wanted to make sure we didn't aim at a target that would result in a degradation of service," she said. "We found a very reasonable level of consolidation."

Her office will continue to evaluate the quality of the services and the need for further consolidation.

In addition, HHS officials are combining the department's seven major networks into one. This project, called HHS-Net, is a more unified physical network architecture to support enterprisewide applications, Chapman said. The unified financial management system is one example of an enterprisewide application the network will support.

"With our unified financial management system, it's critical that the departmentwide network be reliable, secure and high-performance," Chapman said.

Department officials also plan to increase the network's bandwidth and security features, which means a cost increase. The backbone network, which they expect to implement in the fall, eventually will save HHS money, Chapman said.

As they begin consolidating, HHS officials should examine their expectations of network providers, said Carol Kelly, an analyst for META Group Inc. "It also provides an opportunity to do that service-level inventory and make changes as appropriate," Kelly said. "It gives you an opportunity to improve programs and processes."

The third piece of the consolidation is the effort to merge the department's e-mail systems into one centrally managed system. The current system supports about 96,000 mailboxes, which are distributed across 150 servers worldwide. The wide-area network connectivity and the applications — Microsoft Corp. Exchange 5.5 or Novell Inc. GroupWise — vary.

"The e-mail systems were implemented an office at a time," Chapman said. "We want to make sure you can easily and intuitively e-mail everyone else."

A key to a successful consolidation project is a focus on change management, because employees' jobs will change and common practices will be modified.

"Look first toward the processes that are most common and least resistant to change," Kelly said. Starting with those familiar practices, such as how call center communication is handled, HHS officials can build support for the endeavor. They can then keep employees on board with a newsletter, for example, she said.

"It builds momentum," she said. "You want to minimize your risk for failure."

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Bringing it all back home

The Department of Health and Human Services' consolidation project tackles three major areas:

* Merging more than 50 operations and support providers into six to deliver services such as call-center support and network operations.

* Combining seven networks into a single, enterprisewide network.

* Creating a single, centrally managed e-mail system for the department's 70,000 users.

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