Is harmony within reach at DHS?

Twenty-one months after the Homeland Security Department was created, officials still grapple with merging 22 agencies and 180,000 employees. But with more than $4 billion to spend on information technology in fiscal 2005, the department's chief information officers have set ambitious priorities for the new year.

Many of them are new priorities, but some are not.

Charles Armstrong, the Border and Transportation Security Directorate's

CIO, said DHS officials have much to

accomplish before they can achieve an ideal state of consolidation. They must put more horsepower into departmentwide information-sharing efforts and ensuring that agency officials in terrorist-related screening and targeting programs can communicate across secure networks, he said.

Department CIO Steve Cooper said that six months after DHS was created, he sat down with all of the department's CIOs and selected eight departmental priorities.

Cooper said he viewed the task then as requiring a conductor's ear. Amid the noise, he said he remembered thinking, how could someone hear "the resonant chord, the melody line above the noise?" He recalled thinking, such as " ...where do I shine the flashlight?"

Having made progress toward completing the eight priorities in 2004, Cooper and members of the department's CIO Council selected five priorities for 2005. He has catchy names for each: transform the enterprise, secure the homeland, finish the foundation, stand up the start-ups and empower the IT workforce.

"Transform the enterprise" is Cooper's way of describing the CIOs' responsibility for the department's IT services, products and capabilities. Improving the means for sharing information via data networks is a significant component of that transformation.

Enterprise architecture is another. But unlike last year, Cooper said, this year, DHS officials have an architecture in place that will be useful for guiding decisions about IT spending.

"Secure the homeland" acknowledges the department's responsibility for securing information and information systems. In 2004, DHS officials went from having only 34 percent to having 68 percent of their major systems and applications certified and accredited as secure. They hope to reach 85 percent in 2005.

What has been achieved, Cooper said, proves that DHS employees can make significant progress quickly. Information and systems security, he said, has become part of the department's organizational culture.

Another priority is "finish the foundation," which comprises five major services important for solidifying the department's IT infrastructure. They are e-mail and Microsoft Active Directory services, network services, IT operations, help-desk services and consolidated data-center services.

Part of the foundation will be a classified Homeland Secure Data Network and wide-area network. In addition, portfolio management, which includes a formal methodology for identifying, categorizing and assessing the value of IT applications, forms a substantial portion of the CIOs' foundation work for the department, Cooper said.

Another priority, "stand up the start-ups," emphasizes building the capabilities of DHS' new agencies. They include the Management Directorate, the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, the Science and Technology Directorate, the Transportation Security Administration and the secretary's office.

"Empower the workforce" requires identifying employees' skills and training needs for the next five years.

DHS officials are studying the demographic characteristics of the department's IT employees, partly out of concern that 38 percent of IT employees would be eligible to retire immediately if they chose to.

Donald Kettl, a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, said DHS officials must deal with two classes of information systems challenges. One is the broader challenge of integrating information management and technology systems for the department as a whole. The second is a more focused problem of integrating information, such as terrorist watch lists.

DHS officials must solve the first challenge before they can deal with the second, said Kettl, who has written extensively about the department and testified before Congress. "The basic [IT] problems have proved daunting and, in many ways, a lot more difficult than some people expected in the beginning of this process," he said.

The second challenge — integrating information — has created the biggest headlines. But both are important, Kettl said. With homeland security, he added, it's difficult to say that any one thing is more important than another because it's hard to know what the biggest risks are.

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Hot topics in 2005

Chief information officers at the Homeland Security Department have announced their top information technology initiatives, applications and projects for 2005. The list of priorities includes:

Information sharing.

Enterprise architecture.

Certifying and accrediting information systems.

Cybersecurity.

Identity credentialing.

Screening people and cargo.

E-mail and Microsoft Active Directory services.

Network services.

Help desk services.

Data center consolidation.

Deploying the Homeland Secure Data Network.

Offering applications and new capabilities to DHS agencies.

Identifying skill sets of IT employees.

Providing career development for IT employees.

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