The next big thing for government

In a discussion that lasted for more than an hour, experts batted around a multitude of ideas that included wireless technology and the reason it will be so big, information security and assurance, and how to deal with budget tightening. The group looked at other important issues, such as the growing influence of China on the information technology world and how the presidential election will affect the technology agenda. We sought a diversity of opinions on why some things will work and others will not. The roundtable was moderated by Judi Hasson, editor at large at Federal Computer Week. And although we covered many issues, wireless technology clearly emerged as the winner. Here's our discussion. For a full transcript in PDF format, go to the Download's Data Call at

John Backus, venture capitalist and founder and managing partner of Draper Atlantic:

If I had to pick a space out there, we really like the wireless space, especially the wireless data space. We think there's an interesting convergence happening among e-mail, instant messaging and text messaging. We think interaction with the wireless IP network, as opposed to the current voice network, is going to be a big area of growth.

I know there are a lot of concerns about security, and a lot of those are well-founded. The point I would make is that wireless is coming, whether you like it or not. Be prepared for it, because you're going to have your employees doing whatever it takes to make data more accessible.

Dan Chenok, vice president of SRA International Inc. and former branch chief for information policy and technology in the Office of Management and Budget:

The government's budget constraints are real in the discretionary sense. But the IT budget — the money that agencies spend on technology, especially technology purchased on the market — isn't necessarily directly tied to overall budget constraints. Agencies can make decisions to reduce spending in one place and increase spending in IT, or vice versa. There's a one-to-one relationship.

It really involves the strategic priority that the agency places — the influence that the chief information officer has on the agency — in terms of spending. Obviously, wireless is a big priority for the government.

Dave Wennergren, chief information officer at the Navy Department:

I can't imagine that the technology component of budgets will not continue to grow. We still have parts of our organizations that are far too labor-intensive, far too paper-based. Although the overall constraints of an agency's budget may be a real issue, we see more and more information technology embedded in every business line, in every aspect of the organization. If you carve out the technology component of an agency budget, I see a continuing growth in IT spending, because it is what drives and fuels the process transformations of the agencies.

Craig Janus, vice president of the Center for Information and Telecommunications Technologies at Mitretek Systems Inc.:

We see the next big thing as a convergence of disparate technologies, such as radio frequency identification, or RFID. We're doing a lot of research in biometric fusion. But it's all going to be wireless in the end. In five years, you'll walk through Wal-Mart, you'll fill your cart, you'll go to your car. You won't need a credit card, you won't need an ATM card, you won't need a debit card. You'll need money in the bank, and it will be deducted, and you'll get a statement.

Government inventories will be tracked that way. Government people will likely be tracked that way. All of this has to converge, and the technologies exist today. But they have to become mature and integrated in a way that we haven't seen yet.

Amit Yoran, (right) director of the National Cyber Security Division in the Homeland Security Department:

A lot of big things are going to be driven by homeland security, in a sense, in both the public and private sectors. We need to better secure our critical infrastructures, our business systems and our business processes. Will it be driven by the Homeland Security Department? It's hard for us to achieve any sort of agreement or consensus on what the next big thing is. I think everybody that's spoken so far has identified several big things or a few big things each.

Some big things will be driven by the Homeland Security Department. Many more things will be driven by components of the public sector and certainly by the private sector's increasing thirst for better accessibility and improved security.

Wennergren: The overall theme of homeland security is driving so many things. It's driving collaboration — collaboration that we do with organizations that we never collaborated with before, such as private-sector counterparts and state and local governments — as we seek to secure not only our physical footprints but also where our soldiers and sailors live and the infrastructures we rely on in the global community.

The sharing of information that has to take place securely across organizations is often classified information or information that, if you collect in one spot, becomes a security issue. Finding ways to weed through all of the information that has to be shared so the right people get the right information — and the wrong people don't get the right information — is a continuing challenge. It strikes me that data mining and advances in data mining are going to be crucially important to us. In homeland security, we worry about questions such as, "Can you notice small anomalies in large masses of data?"

We used to hoard information in many intelligence and law enforcement organizations. Now, it has to be about information sharing in real time and being able to sift through all of this information to know what you need, or what the regional National Criminal Investigative Service agent needs, or what the FBI agents needs.

Yoran: But technology that DHS, intelligence agencies and Defense Department officials will be taking advantage of will be similar to what you've defined in the Wal-Marts as they amass their RFID information to better target sales and services to their customer base.

Darlene Hines, senior practice manager at Sprint Mobile Computing Solutions:

We like to think of personal digital assistants as communication devices that are becoming integrated with computing capabilities and powers. What we see is the federal government, largely because of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks and the homeland security effort, leading the country in business applications. Wireless is here, and a lot of what's driving wireless adoption is that we have now expedited the issues of security. How do you secure not only the data in transit but on the device itself? How do we protect that? How do we incorporate security such as user identification, authentication and verification?

A lot of the standards and approaches that are being developed and standardized to some degree in the federal government are being taken out into the commercial space.

We see the next big thing being the ability to have location-based services and geospatial services and those kinds of things. It's being able to not only identify what agents are out there and what needs to be done but also where are the most citizens and being able to do some fencing based on that information. It's being able to appropriately broadcast messages, whether by instant messaging, visual or whatever, to extend the work and the efforts that we're doing in homeland security to the citizen and the general population.

Chenok: Whether it's, instant messaging at the beach, shopping at Wal-Mart, or a homeland security border guard or welfare caseworker, it's all about simultaneous decision-making across disparate environments. It's about pulling in data. So whether or not it's wireless — and wireless is clearly a leader — people are interested in technologies with cost-efficient breakthroughs in high-level computing over disparate environments.

Olga Grkavac, executive vice president of the Enterprise Solutions Division at the Information Technology Association of America:

We view the challenge between technology and public policy as a potential next big thing, because there are two big drivers of RFID. One of them is Wal-Mart, the other is DOD. And there have been some recent articles about software that has been developed that might allow people to hack into the Wal-Mart systems. Utah officials already passed a law, which we're hoping to get revoked or modified, that classifies RFID- related technology as spyware.

Massachusetts officials also have a bill in their legislature that concerns privacy aspects of RFID. And yet DOD and undersecretary Michael Wynne have been pushing this technology forcefully within the department. It's exciting, but there is also a public policy aspect. We haven't yet heard from Congress.

Robert Brammer, chief technology officer at Northrop Grumman IT:

Northrop Grumman is one of the largest providers of networks in national security and civil agencies. Our wireless products are broadband wireless. We've started with some fairly significant pilots and, now, are moving on to some large-scale metropolitan public safety networks.

The key issues there are security and interoperability. You have to be able to get the data around, and we're talking about not only text messaging but also video graphics.

Backus: Is homeland security the next big? Is it going to generate the next big thing? I would say homeland security will generate the next big spending, but I don't think it's going to generate the next breakthrough technology. It will generate funds that will help companies find what that technology is. It will generate needs and requirements. But it is going to be the private sector that comes up with those breakthroughs, and those breakthroughs oftentimes will be things that a government agency can't envision.

Wennergren: So perhaps it's government's job in a leadership role to help make some order out of chaos. I take your point about how new technologies come to the marketplace. But now that we live in a networked world, government can use its size in a united way, as we've done in aligning a set of standards for public-key infrastructure or smart cards where they didn't exist before.

Ed Meagher, deputy assistant secretary for information and technology at the Department of Veterans Affairs:

We have an aging infrastructure that we're slowly trying to modernize. It's so large, it costs so much just to keep our lights on, that we've come to the conclusion that any request, however valid, for a significantly larger chunk of new money is going to be met with some skepticism.

We're going to have to pay for those advances, those new technologies, by becoming more efficient. We think there are significant opportunities to do that. We do need more money, but we really have nothing to complain about in terms of how generous both Congress and the administrations have been to us.

We don't think we're going to be asking for another large chunk of money. We're going to redirect what we've already been given and, hopefully, spend it more intelligently.

There's always more need than there is resource. That's our future. We need to do a better job of capturing savings.

Chenok: The new procurement vehicle — the share-in-savings vehicle — forces this conversation because the industry is not going to come forward unless there's an accurate baseline against which to base a return-on-investment calculation.

The government wants to get productivity improvements through an IT culture and through share-in-savings vehicles. So it is incumbent on agency officials to tie in all of the elements of looking for productivity enhancements — cost reductions and an accurate baseline as well as projections.

Wennergren: I think the thing that changes dramatically is the more real-time sense and network-centric world.

In the past, intelligence information was gathered, analyzed and used for its purposes. But now intelligence information is needed immediately to help somebody in the field find a target in real time.

That sharing of information across what was traditionally stovepipe boundaries is the focus of a lot of DOD work about network-centric enterprise services and horizontal fusion.

You may have gathered information for some specific purpose, and it may have come from some very secret source. But warfighters in the field don't really care. They just want to be able to use it to go do their mission for the day.

Chenok: We need to build good privacy protections in system design and development. We need to have good privacy and security in system operations, and we need to demonstrate it through steps like [mandating] the chief privacy officer. All three are necessary.

Hines: Certainly from a communications perspective, interoperability — whether that's spelled convergence or integration or interoperability — is paramount to this whole conversation, right along with computing. And that is anytime, anywhere, any device communication. That means across any communication mode.

To go to a full interoperable information-sharing environment, you have to be able to take data and all of those integrations and interoperabilities and get them to the people in the correct format and right manner. That's certainly what we're working toward.

Janus: It has to be a ubiquitous network capable of delivering integrated data, so clearly, we need it. It's not here yet. But yes, it's important.

Grkavac: I'd like to see a reorganization of the congressional committees along more 21st-century lines. It won't happen, but that would be my wish.

Janus: I think a focus on interoperability and security has to be a near-term mandate.

Hines: A recognition at the grand level that the line separating computing and communications is almost gone. We need to start looking at that from Day One and bringing the full capabilities to it — the interaction.

Wennergren: The strategic partnership between industry and government. We've got to work together to find interoperable solutions before we can take hold of the next big thing and make the next big thing a reality.

Yoran: I think the IT industry needs to stop talking about the next silver bullet, the better mousetrap, and start focusing on the business drivers, the economics, the economic impact on organizations. It need to put things into simple business terms so the decision-makers can make more informed decisions.

Meagher: (right) At the top of my wish list would be the notion that the underlying bureaucratic procedural, policy rules that we have to live with would somehow be updated, so we can start to deal with the 21st-century realities: the notion of share-in-savings, the notion of partnering with industry, the notion of trying a new technology and failing and not having that be a career-ending move. Those things that govern how we behave on a daily basis need to be updated to deal with the new reality.

Brammer: We've got to keep our foot to the floor in terms of technology development. Whether it's environmental monitoring and prediction, security, all kinds of things, we are orders of magnitude below where we need to be in terms of the performance of our computing technology.

Chenok: Real demonstrations of how policy, process and technology come together to improve business, so we can see how to do it in addition to talking about the fact that it needs to be done.

Wennergren: It is a moment of opportunity. As you move to a networked world, you have an opportunity to step out of whatever you are in — an organization, a business unit — and you begin to be able to do things at an enterprise level that were never done before. It's hard, because it requires you to let go of some personal control. And that's something that we just don't like to do. But, boy, the opportunities are amazing that are out there.

Janus: Not only that, it's a fresh start, it's a green field environment. We can take a systems approach — don't let technology drive the train. It may not be a technological solution. It may be a process. It may be a mission problem. Let's figure out what the problem is, and then let's set about in a systems way — and I don't mean a technical systems way — to solve it.

That's going to go a long way toward saving tax dollars, improving the operational tempo of government agencies, saving a lot of money and creating some really good systems that won't end up like the Edsel.

Wennergren: Have open eyes and an open mind.

Janus: Absolutely. Hear, hear. Now, there's your quote. There's your sound bite.

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