More follow-through needed

Among the technologies that can play a role in homeland security, some illustrate the industry's latest advances, from biometric identification systems to data-mining software that can unearth telling patterns of activity amid mountains of seemingly unrelated data.

Another group of technologies is also relevant to homeland security, but unlike the cutting-edge ones, these are already mature and working successfully in various government applications. Yet in many cases, these tools, and the specially tailored agency routines that could take advantage of them, are still not in place.

On one level, this report focuses on technologies that can assist first responders and emergency management officials in their jobs. In most instances, these technologies are not the gee-whiz sort, because most are already proven to work. They include interoperable radio equipment, basic information-sharing networks, continuity of operations (COOP) solutions and databases for analyzing health information that could provide early warnings of bioterrorism attacks and help the government respond better.

The story within the stories, however, is the slow pace at which many of these technologies are being implemented. The reasons for the sluggishness are well known to government information technology professionals. The impediments are rooted in money and leadership — or, to be more precise, insufficient quantities of both. What makes the situation frustrating are the life-and-death stakes involved.

Of these challenges, money is the most critical. Unlimited funding could go a long way toward easing the other problem, but that's an unrealistic prospect. One of the tough lessons of the post-Sept. 11, 2001, world is that many worthwhile initiatives will never see the light of day because there is simply not enough money to go around. The money that is available must be spent where the expected benefits are greatest, decisions that are still — given the unpredictable nature of terrorism threats — more art than science.

More could be done to resolve leadership issues, without the need for bigger budgets. Take, for example, COOP plans, the procedures and systems that would kick in if an agency's primary facilities were knocked out.

Certainly such plans could include expensive technical components, such as long-distance data-copying applications and the setup of redundant computer systems and facilities. But agency officials could take far simpler and less expensive steps, such as identifying critical operations, personnel and infrastructure as well as developing basic plans for reconstituting some form of their most important operations at another site.

Yet a recent General Accounting Office review of COOP plans governmentwide found that agencies have universally fallen short — some worse than others — of meeting the full government guidelines for disaster readiness. Agency executives can rightly argue that previous directives to develop these plans amounted to an unfunded mandate, but that doesn't explain the extent of the inaction.

The American people don't expect miracles from government officials, but they deserve more urgent action when problems are known and affordable solutions are available.

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In the latest issue: Looking back on three decades of big stories in federal IT.

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