Letter to the editor

Interior IT 'not dumb, just broke'

As the former National Park Service information technology manager (from 1989 to 2000), I have become increasingly chagrined about the IT problems at the Interior Department and the quote from a lawyer that you printed in "The great divide," an article in your Feb. 4 issue: "They [Interior's IT officials] just don't know what the hell they're doing."

I regard that comment as a blot on the record of the fine IT professionals I worked with during my stay at Interior. Good IT, like a good legal defense, is built on the back of money. I spent more than 10 years telling people, "We were not dumb, we were just broke."

I had well-worn charts that I prepared in the 1990s that showed Interior as having the lowest annual IT funding of all the major cabinet agencies. Over the years, this cumulative IT funding gap would be in the billions. And guess what? Within Interior, I had the pleasure of managing the information resources program at the bottom of the Interior funding heap on a per capita basis, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs was second from the bottom out of the eight remaining bureaus.

In regard to the reporting on "Interior's IT problems," I have not seen any insight from your publication on the rot that this type of funding gap could cause at BIA or NPS during a 20- or 30-year period. You talk about a cultural gap, whatever that is, and quote a former official from the Environmental Protection Agency on security issues.

I also spent 12 years at the EPA. It is about the same size as NPS in terms of staff, but it is far smaller in regard to infrastructure. However, EPA had an IT budget about 10 times larger than NPS. I made an annual request for an IT security program throughout the 1990s but could never get it funded. The choice we had was security and little network or a network and little security.

Most of the problems discussed in "The great divide" are little more than symptoms of the long-term chronic underfunding of Interior IT-related processes.

From my past federal budget battles, I know that in a period of tight national budgets, it's unlikely that the Interior political leadership will talk about or address this massive core structural IT funding problem that has persisted over several decades.

A favorite and familiar solution is to rearrange the deck chairs by reorganizing and or changing managers. (A former BIA chief information officer was moved into my old office several months after I left, and I see BIA may be reorganized again.)

Your articles also put some emphasis on the Interior CIO position, giving the impression that there is some measure of line IT control from that position. In reality, IT in Interior works more like a beehive, ant colony or maybe a jellyfish where the cells work together without a well-developed central nervous system. Each bureau IT function and major Interior IT function (accounting, payroll, mainframe management) operate together without much central control. The Interior CIO had almost no line budget and very few technical resources. You are wasting your time investigating any specific Interior IT problem from that perspective.

Regarding the specific Interior network problem, in the 1990s, a General Accounting Office report on telecommunications in the Agriculture Department pointed to potential IT savings if independent bureau networks were consolidated at the department level. Interior was also caught up in the pressure of this report. However, Agriculture had a tradition of having much larger department-level IT functions. In Interior, the tradition was to have a bureau provide departmentwide operational IT functions. In that context, the existing U.S. Geological Survey network and the large circuits that connected the USGS sites became the core Interior network backbone. At NPS, the parks' small tail circuits connected to this backbone.

In the late 1980s, BIA had a completely separate network, but it was merged into this Interior network process to reduce potential "duplicate circuit" problems. Merging the networks of bureaus that have very different missions can be very difficult. For example, bureaus such as NPS and USGS need wide open networks to make sure that any citizen can access information about, for example, our great national parks. But a bureau such as BIA with trust responsibilities would want a very secure network.

However -- going back to the severe IT funding limitations -- to create any type of consolidated network design, compromises were made that probably led to vulnerabilities that caused the Interior network to be shut down.

In the late 1990s, the NPS Web site became more and more popular with citizens around the world. In 2000, the site received more than a million hits a day, more than all other Interior sites combined and one of the top 10 in the federal sector. As this popularity grew, I became very concerned about potential network vulnerabilities caused by the IT funding shortfalls and the inherent mission differences of the NPS open systems and the BIA-type secure systems running on the open Interior network.

I knew if this resource went down for any length of time, you would never get all the customers back. Because I did not want to see this valuable Web-based resource go down the drain because of some Interior problem, during the "Y2K fix era," NPS received some additional IT funding. We installed state-of-the-art firewall and intrusion-detection equipment in front of the primary NPS Web servers and set up the primary circuit to these servers and a Domain Name System so they could be what I called "life-boated" or isolated from the Interior network if there was some form of catastrophic failure.

During the 1990s, we also maintained telephone dial-up connections to the mainframes for payroll input backup that was also separate from the Interior IP network.

I left Interior before the new administration came in, so I don't know the technical, political or legal reasons why its network and popular Web sites are still down. However, I do know if that Interior IT had been funded at the same level as the other large cabinet-level agencies, the network would have looked very different to the judge today.

Since I have retired, I'm still broke, but I enjoy reading your publication and I can make these comments without the political or operational pressures on the current Interior CIOs.

Donald Thie
Woodbridge, Va.

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