EPA CIO left hanging by proposed IT revamp

The Environmental Protection Agency last week unveiled a major overhaul of its entire information technology operations that would unseat the current chief information officer and affect some 400 other agency employees.

The plan, announced last week at an agencywide meeting, aims to dismantle organizational stovepipes that have slowed or blocked efforts within the agency to integrate its databases; publish more, higher-quality information online; reduce the paperwork burden on the companies it regulates; and promote an agencywide IT infrastructure.

Under the plan, the EPA would form an Information Office, which would be run by a new chief information officer with powers unparalleled in the government community. The idea is to "ensure that information is used broadly as a strategic resource to achieve the environmental mission for the agency," said Al Pesachowitz, the EPA's current CIO, who is expected to be replaced by a political appointee.

Pesachowitz said that he will remain CIO until the Information Office is launched in late summer, advising Margaret Schneider, the EPA's assistant deputy administrator, who will become deputy to the new CIO. Then, Pesachowitz said, "they will tell me what my position is. I'm still kind of [up] in the air on this, but I will remain intimately involved in the completion of the reorganization."

Pesachowitz becomes eligible for retirement this year, but he said he does not plan to leave government.

Sources inside and outside the EPA who have followed the reorganization said Pesachowitz, a civil servant, was not expected to get the top job. Agency leaders apparently passed over other inside candidates as well, and, according to one insider, are "looking to bring in fresh air" to the position.

"My belief is they will step up and this will be Senate-confirmed," said Paul Wohlleben, former deputy CIO at the EPA and now a consultant with Grant Thornton LLP.

Wohlleben said Pesachowitz's boss, Romulo Diaz Jr., assistant administrator for administration and resources management, also has a Senate-confirmed position. "They are saying information is a priority, and they have to back that up with the right-level official," he added. "They need to be a member of that inner circle if they're going to be effective."

By overseeing the entire information life cycle, the new EPA CIO would have the power to marshal staff and funds to "provide some efficiencies and direct resources towards critical areas," Pesachowitz said.

The agency is the first to officially marry management of information systems with management of the data stored in those systems. "I think EPA is leagues ahead of any other agency in government in thinking through a strategy for dealing with public access and handling information," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch, a government watchdog group.

Mary Blakeslee, director of information management with the Environmental Council of States, an EPA advisory group, said the EPA's reorganization shows the reality of IT's influence in federal operations. Blakeslee, an EPA employee on detail to ECOS until next year, said, "We're not talking about my box and your box anymore. We're talking about this piece of data and what does it mean and how we are going to transport it."

But the plan was greeted skeptically by some EPA managers, who worry the shake-up will merely create new bureaucratic hassles. A midlevel manager at the EPA said the agency's geospatial data program will be managed from one office while another office will be responsible for disseminating that information.

"You're going to have to do a heck of a lot of communication and coordination," said the manager, who requested anonymity.

"It's hard to come up with a rationale for the things they've collected together," said another agency manager who also asked not to be identified.

The plan creates four new offices under the CIO, which will be in charge of IT, data collection, public access and outreach. A Quality and Information Council, made up of senior agency program executives, would help the CIO make policy and set priorities for IT investments.

Pesachowitz said agency program offices still would control the data they collect and the systems they use for environmental analysis and enforcement.

The EPA's administrator, Carol Browner, still must approve the plan, which she is expected to do next month.

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