NIH reorganizes, refocuses IT offices

The National Institutes of Health has reorganized the way it manages information technology, combining its computer services, telecommunications and policy offices under a newly appointed chief information officer. NIH's Division of Computer Research and Technology (DCRT), the Office of Information

The National Institutes of Health has reorganized the way it manages information technology, combining its computer services, telecommunications and policy offices under a newly appointed chief information officer.

NIH's Division of Computer Research and Technology (DCRT), the Office of Information Resources Management and the Telecommunications Branch in the NIH Office of Research Services have been merged to form the Center for Information Technology (CIT). The decision to create the new office was made a few months ago, but it became official with the appointment of Alan Graeff as the CIO on March 29.

Tony Itteilag, deputy director with the NIH Office of Management, said CIT would provide "more focus on the management of [IT],'' improving coordination of IT use among the agency's 24 centers and research institutes. A study completed last year by Arthur Andersen endorsed the move, which had been recommended by an NIH committee.

"We want to look at...interoperability, architectural standards [such as] e-mail, [and] security is a big issue as well,'' Itteilag said. The reorganization also will allow the agency to give more attention to its Year 2000 fixes, he added.

According to an internal study conducted last year for NIH Director Harold Varmus, the agency needs to establish standards for its IT equipment to promote interoperability among its systems, to decide whether to adopt common word processing software throughout the agency to improve document exchange and to improve network security.

NIH has been under pressure from Congress to reduce its administrative costs so that it will have more for scientific research; coordinating its information systems is one way that lawmakers think the agency could save money. Itteilag said this is one of Varmus' goals, and "we are going to get [the institute directors] on board with this.''

David Kohn, press secretary for Rep. John Porter (R-Ill.), who requested the Arthur Andersen study, said the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services and Education, which Porter heads, plans to pursue more integrated management of NIH IT operations, as recommended in the report, beginning with the fiscal 1999 spending bill that is now before the subcommittee.

Although DCRT has provided central mainframe and network services for the entire agency, the institutes have their own IT budgets and have generally bought their own equipment.

Renny DiPentima, president of SRA Federal Systems and a former Social Security Administration IT executive, said the model that NIH chose for its IT organization reflects the CIO's dual responsibilities of strategic planning and operations. "I had that at SSA,'' he said. "The closer you get to the inside of an agency like SSA or IRS or NIH, the more usual it is [for a CIO to be in charge of] architecture, standards, e-mail [and] common platforms as well as the tactical'' operations.

That is different from a CIO at the top of a Cabinet department, whose duties are mostly focused on oversight of the agencies within the department, he added. DiPentima, whose company holds a contract with NIH and who has, through the Industry Advisory Council, advised agencies on structuring CIO offices, was part of a committee that recommended candidates for the job. However, he was not involved with NIH's decision to merge its IT offices.

Graeff, the new CIO, is a biologist who served as head of the IS department at NIH's Warren Grant Magnuson Clinical Center. Graeff declined to be interviewed for this story.

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