Federal enterprise architecture at a crossroads

If and when it is completed, an operational federal enterprise architecture would represent a triumph of engineering and money.

The consensus among experts is that enterprise architecture is more than just a fad. If that is true, it seems to be at a crossroads. If and when it is completed, an operational federal enterprise architecture would represent a triumph of engineering and money.

Implementing architectures at the agency level is already no small feat, said Randy Hite, director of information technology architecture and systems issues at the Government Accountability Office. At the federal level, "the challenges have been increased by an order of magnitude," he said.

The federal enterprise architecture has struggled for resources and attention since its creation. For a long while in 2004, the effort looked rudderless, bereft of a chief architect in the Office of Management and Budget. During that dry time, the House tried to eliminate the position of chief architect.

Despite the setbacks and scarce resources, proponents say the federal enterprise architecture is on the cusp of something great. "It is time to move from the conceptual development and initial deployment phases," a CIO Council document states. The moment has arrived to take the federal enterprise architecture "into full implementation and operation states."

Attention has focused mainly on the five reference models, four of which have complete first iterations. But the reference models aren't an architecture. They're classification schemes — taxonomies — of performance measurements, business functions, applications and technical standards. A task force is revising the fifth model — the data reference model — to include an operational component for data exchange, but it is not yet complete.

Agencies use the models mainly to satisfy OMB's budget process requirements. They have few operational elements. But "the reference models are tools to be used in order to do things that ultimately result in an architecture," said Mike Tiemann, a senior associate at Booz Allen Hamilton and an architecture proponent.

But even as a tool for budget analysis, the reference models fall short. Conceived as parts of a whole, the five models were built one by one and have ended up disjointed — their connections with one another get lost. "That would have been great if they had done it in a fully integrated fashion, but it wasn't practicable," Tiemann said. What's missing is a way to link the models so definitions occur in a consistent, shareable and connectable way, he added.

Because the models are disjointed, it is difficult to discover cross-agency redundancies. The scope of detailed definitions of agency functions in the business reference model is so broad that two agencies with the same subfunction could have different mission requirements. Agency enterprise architectures more deeply define specific mission functions and processes, but the tools and methodologies vary broadly.

Cross-agency analysis is often like "dealing with apples and oranges and grapefruit," said Roy Roebuck, chief architect of the Continuity Communications Enterprise Architecture Program Office. But if agencies could tie the reference models into "one structure that encompasses them all, then you can do analysis across them all," he said.

And that's when the phrase "transforming government" rises above its status as an in-vogue cliché. "Architecture is the way you do the tough, hard analysis, the tough, hard engineering work in order to be able to build the complex bridge to the future," Tiemann said.

Making the federal enterprise architecture operational will require a different approach than the one agencies take. OMB's strategy is to "optimize agency-level architecture and, where possible and where practical, force the agencies into collaborative line-of-business implementations," Tiemann said. "Is that the most optimal way to do it? Well, you could debate that, but it's the most practical way in the context of the limited resources."

Think of the federal enterprise architecture as a box of Legos, said Ira Grossman, chairman of the Chief Architects Forum. The pieces consist of agency architectures. "You throw them on the floor and you start out with nothing," he said, "but you put it together and it becomes something — a composite."

Even then, using agency enterprise architectures to construct a federal enterprise architecture along a federated, composite or segmented basis — there's no consensus on which word to use — is a significant task. Obviously, one challenge is getting everyone to speak the same language. "That's part of the whole problem with architecture — there are all kinds of terms thrown around," Hite said. "There's no commonality of understanding and definition around things."

The Chief Architects Forum is trying to correct that. Its members are developing an online glossary of common terms for eventual codification by OMB. Having a list of common essential terms "is a basic step to develop a true federal enterprise architecture," Grossman said.

And just as fundamentally, the data reference model must be completed. The need for better data sharing is apparent, but data transparency is also a fundamental requirement for any enterprise architecture. "Most of the inefficiency and ineffectiveness that's in place is an inability to access or share data, and a lot of the inefficiency is replication of data," Tiemann said.

The data reference model is diverging from the other models, which are strictly taxonomies. "You have to have an operational component" to share data across agencies, said Michael Daconta, leader of the CIO Council's Data Reference Model Task Force.

The federal enterprise architecture program has struggled with the evolution of reference models. "People always realized that there needs to be a mechanism to update and refresh the reference models," Tiemann said. But resources have been limited.

Terminology

Data reference model

A still incomplete framework for the identification, use and sharing of common data and information across the federal government. The task force completing the model aims to achieve that goal through governmentwide adoption of a schema based on Extensible Markup Language. A schema is a general description of a dataset that shows the types of data and their relationships.

Taxonomy

A taxonomy is a hierarchical way of classifying things and concepts. Taxonomies begin with a general concept or thing and list the elements from which it is made. The taxonomy of "my ideal breakfast," for example, can be broken down into "bacon" and "eggs." The best-known taxonomy is the scientific classification of living things that starts with "kingdom" and ends with "species." The reference models, with the exception of the data reference model, are taxonomies of performance measurements, business functions, applications and technical standards.

Ontology

An ontology offers a way of capturing meaning from one area of knowledge to another that is not dependent on the vocabulary a particular knowledge domain uses. An ontology offers a richer set of relationships among elements than taxonomies, such as full or partial equivalence, reference, contingency, sequence and containment.

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