DHS changes, past and future

With Cooper's departure, some talk about giving the CIO more muscle

Steve Cooper's final days as the inaugural chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department came to a close last month, and many are now questioning whether substantive organizational changes are needed for that position to be more effective.

Cooper said he is looking forward to spending time with his family. But he understands that people, particularly in Washington, D.C., don't like significant changes, particularly ones he tried to make.

DHS inherited 22 agencies with many overlapping programs, Cooper said. By creating an enterprisewide infrastructure among those distinct entities, he said, someone loses when those overlaps are removed.

"D.C. is a power town," he said, and that power comes from how many people and how much money you control.

"A lot of CIO programs impinge on those," he said. "We're taking some of their people and money, but we're doing it for the better good of the department."

Lately, power and change are on the minds of people who control, work with or observe DHS.

Cooper's departure has sparked discussions about whether he had enough authority to do his job effectively. Government officials and industry representatives have told lawmakers that the department's CIO needs direct access to top decision-makers to make necessary changes for the nation's security.

Richard Skinner, DHS' acting inspector general, told the House Homeland Security Committee's Management, Integration and Oversight Subcommittee that DHS' CIO should report directly to the department's secretary and deputy secretary. Currently, the position answers to the undersecretary for management, Janet Hale. A promotion, he said, could lead to substantial change in the department in less than a year.

Information technology "transcends all department operations, and someone needs to be in a management position to provide oversight," Skinner said.

Interest in tailoring the authority of high-profile DHS officials stretches beyond the CIO's office. For the second time in six months, Congress is deciding whether to replace the national cybersecurity director, with an assistant secretary who would have more authority.

Cooper did not comment on the power question. "Ask me in a couple months if I had enough authority," he said. "I'm still too close to everything I've been doing."

Cooper said his office created two crucial new systems from scratch in two years: the Homeland Security Information Network, which shares unclassified data with state and local emergency responders, and the Homeland Security Data Network, which shares classified data with other federal agencies.

"The only way to evaluate the first couple years of the department," he said, "is to look at what we've accomplished."

Cooper said he maximized the use of his staff of 78 and budget of $300 million. In President Bush's fiscal 2006 budget request, the CIO's office would receive enough to hire 10 or 11 more people, he said. Although the office could use a significant increase, "we accept we live in a resource-restrained environment," he said.

Cooper, the former CIO of Corning Glassware, said that because he came from industry, he did not understand how the federal government works, which hurt him and Mark Emery, DHS' former deputy CIO who joined PEC Solutions in March.

Despite his inexperience with the federal government, Cooper "did a good job in the early phases to bring the department together," said Jim Flyzik, a partner at Guerra, Kiviat, Flyzik and Associates. Cooper had excellent strategic vision and the ability to encourage people to cooperate, Flyzik said.

But even Cooper's vaunted skills were not enough to overcome agencies' infighting and outside pressures to perform, Flyzik said.

One of the biggest challenges Cooper faced, Flyzik said, was balancing funding for new departmentwide initiatives while maintaining existing programs. That led to pressure and conflicts among agencies in DHS, Cooper, Hale and chief financial officer Andrew Maner, Flyzik said.

That is now behind Cooper, who said he is looking forward to the changes in his life.

"The past two years seem like a long time," he said. With a smile, he added, "For those of us who have lived through the past two years, it seems like a really long time."

If you ask Cooper ...

Offering departing advice, Steve Cooper said his successor as chief information officer at the Homeland Security Department should be a political appointee chosen by President Bush, as Cooper was.

The former Corning Glassware CIO said he does not know who might replace him. But if the person is a political appointee, the deputy CIO should be a career federal employee "who knows the government inside and out," he said.

As the 2-year-old department matures, Cooper said, DHS officials need political connections with Bush administration officials and other political appointees. Being a political appointee "greases the skids," he said, adding that "when you have the support of the White House and the federal government, it's not a bad thing" for getting work accomplished.

Cooper said a career federal employee has agency connections cultivated through years of building relationships. Those relationships are critical to the deputy CIO, he said, who is in charge of daily information technology operations. But an appointee, he said, is part of the department's political structure and has the advantages of those political relationships at the outset.

— Michael Arnone

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