Navy takes common-sense tack

The Navy once again has proven itself to be in the forefront of the federal information technology community with its rare ability to design programs that combine innovation and pragmatism.

In the latest case, the Navy has decided to make what it calls a "sweeping shift" in information management as part of its Naval Intranet. This project, formerly called the Navy Worldwide Intranet, will provide 450,000 users with PCs, communications gear and other tools needed to support network connectivity across the Navy and the Marine Corps. But rather than buy and manage this equipment, Navy commanders want to specify and buy a service, leaving the technical details to a contractor.

At first glance, such an approach would appear to be a radical departure. In fact, to some observers, the Naval Intranet smacks of outsourcing, which is certain to raise alarm in Congress because of the potential political ramifications of turning services over to the private sector on such a large scale.

But the procurement strategy shows a practical view of technology. For several years, IT vendors have been saying that federal agencies must learn to think about the Internet in the same way they think about the telephone: not as a technology or product but as a service.

That is the tack the Navy is taking, and it makes sense. Despite the resistance to outsourcing, the Pentagon has come to realize that the armed forces need to focus on military operations. They cannot afford to devote a large amount of resources - and they may not have the technical expertise - to provide services that are readily available in private industry.

The Navy showed the same kind of sharp thinking with its Information Technology for the 21st Century initiative, which was designed to introduce commercial technology into tactical operations. IT-21, which will be a component of the Naval Intranet, seemed bold at the time, but the Navy has carried it out in a measured fashion, looking to deliver some immediate benefits while developing its long-term strategy.

The Navy has a good chance at succeeding with its newest initiative because its top leaders have learned a valuable but elusive lesson: When it comes to technology, it sometimes takes sophisticated thinking to deliver a common-sense solution.

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