Post-9/11 efforts lack strategy

Technology not the root of many homeland security problems

A lack of strategic policies, poor management and inadequate spending have left the federal government's homeland security capabilities far behind where they ought to be, some experts say in response to a final report on the 9/11 Commission's recommendations.

President Bush and Congress received Ds and Fs on a report card for their progress in enacting the recommendations the commission made in its initial July 2004 report, according to members of the 9/11 Public Discourse Project.

Both the executive and legislative branches have let bureaucratic conflicts, turf wars and recalcitrant agency cultures stymie progress in critical areas such as information sharing and interoperable communications for first responders, according to the group that succeeded the commission.

Most of the worst grades, and two of the best, were in areas where information technology is crucial to implementation. "There's no question that technology is part of the problem," said Al Felzenberg, the group's spokesman. But "in some cases, they may have relied too much on technology and not on old-fashioned shoe leather the way they used to do."

The government probably is spending enough money on homeland security technology, but the real question is whether it is addressing the right management and policy issues to use it effectively, said Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International.

Many core information-sharing problems are rooted in people problems, not technology, McConnell said. "We're throwing money at technology without addressing the underlying issues that cause problems in the first place," he said.

A good strategy is essential for success, said Norman Rabkin, managing director of homeland security and justice issues at the Government Accountability Office. GAO has talked a good deal about the need for an effective national transportation security strategy and has published criteria for such a strategy.

Rabkin warned, however, that most Homeland Security Department strategies don't come close to achieving the specificity that would enable congressional leaders to hold the department accountable for completing tasks by a certain time.

In its defense, DHS officials said the 9/11 group's report card doesn't reflect the progress that the department has made in many critical areas, including information sharing. Valerie Smith, a DHS spokeswoman, said a central mission of DHS is to share information with federal, state and local jurisdictions. DHS has instituted many new policies and programs to do that, she added.

For example, it has created the Homeland Security Information Network, which shares unclassified homeland security information with states and the private sector, Smith said. It is moving ahead with tests in each state for information-sharing fusion centers, which are central intelligence clearinghouses.

Interoperable communications is a long-term objective toward which DHS has made much progress, Smith said. Since 2001, DHS has doubled the amount of spectrum available to first responders, she said. The department is finishing a comprehensive study, for release in 2006, of the communications capabilities of 35,000 U.S. jurisdictions.

Creating plans and an architecture for interoperable communications is an important long-term goal for DHS, Smith said. Meanwhile, DHS is providing grants to state and local first responders to buy equipment they can use now.

But some emergency preparedness experts say that approach is misguided. Instead of postponing strategic plans, the government should create strategic plans and comprehensively assess and fix vulnerabilities accordingly, said Mark Ghilarducci, vice president at James Lee Witt Associates, an emergency management consulting firm.

The failure to deal with interoperable communications for first responders is a critical failure of government, said Harris Miller, president of the IT Association of America. But federal decision-makers must look beyond just freeing spectrum, he said. They must also look at more inexpensive technology fixes that allow incompatible communications systems to communicate with one another. The focus on spectrum is a "failure to appreciate how far technology has advanced," he said.

President Bush and Congress must put rhetoric aside and make real advances to remove the policy, management and cultural roadblocks listed in the report, Miller said. Leaders must also recognize the need to invest in relatively inexpensive Web-based and middleware solutions to integrate existing databases instead of building expensive new ones.

Grading the grades

The 9/11 Public Discourse Project's grades are accurate, some industry experts say. The B that the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program received is an example of using technology in a thoughtful way and implementing it according to a reasonable plan, said Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America.

But the Transportation Security Administration's airline passenger screening program, Secure Flight, deserves an F because of its privacy violations, false starts and policy reversals, Miller said. By not focusing its limited manpower, technology and time resources, he said, TSA leaves people standing in line more than is necessary.

The D for lack of specific measures and actions to protect critical infrastructure is frustrating, said Bruce McConnell, president of McConnell International, a consulting firm that advises government. "They've already spent several hundred million dollars on it, and they have nothing to show for it but a plan," he said.

— Michael Arnone

2014 Rising Star Awards

Help us find the next generation of leaders in federal IT.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above