An IT cure-all
- By John Monroe, Judi Hasson
- Jul 10, 2000
Brian Burns doesn't look like a visionary. His office is strewn with paper,
and his filing system is on the floor. But behind the chaos is an idea that
may dramatically change how government agencies buy and manage technology.
Burns wants to tear down the bureaucratic walls at the Department of
Health and Human Services and change the way the largest civilian agency
in the world does business. And he wants to do it in one fell swoop.
"It's going to reduce our overall costs," Burns said. "It will enable
us to have standard policies, procedures and tools across the department."
The concept began to germinate in Burns' mind when he worked with information
systems at the Internal Revenue Service. He carried it with him when he
moved to HHS, where he is now the deputy chief information officer.
The project, known as Enterprise Infrastructure Management, is still
in its infancy, but Burns has drawn up numerous charts showing how EIM — through a complex mix of products, policies and management procedures — will affect nearly every aspect of the department's information technology
Those charts — with their confusing sprawl of lines, arrows and boxes — look to the casual observer like any number of technically complex policy
initiatives. But to Burns, this plan represents a real opportunity to overcome
some of the biggest IT management challenges facing HHS and other agencies — and to do it all at one time.
Burns said he believes, for example, that EIM could provide answers
to the Clinger-Cohen Act, which requires agencies to approach IT spending
as an "investment" that has demonstrable returns — an elusive goal, so far,
for most agencies.
EIM should also establish the framework for addressing Presidential
Decision Directive 63, which requires agencies to protect their critical
information systems against cyberattacks.
And the initiative should lay the groundwork for HHS agencies to move
more of their operations to the Internet, improving the services they deliver
to health care providers or the public.
Making IT a Utility
The EIM strategy contains individual elements that address those and
other challenges. But the overarching strategy is to develop such strong
controls at the top level of the department that people throughout various
HHS agencies can forget about the technology itself and focus on the business
"We want to turn IT into a utility. People expect it to be here. The
lights work, the water runs and the PC works," Burns said.
For Burns, the challenge is especially daunting because of the decentralized
nature of HHS. The department includes 13 operating divisions that generally
run independently, like a loose federation of small, powerful fiefdoms (see
That structure has evolved because each division has a unique mission.
The Food and Drug Administration, for example, serves a very different constituency
from the Health Care Financing Administration, which oversees the federal
Medicare and Medicaid programs for the elderly and poor.
Yet the decentralized structure has also resulted in the 13 divisions
setting up and running their own IT operations. Such redundancy can be unnecessary
and very costly.
The situation is not far different from the way houses and apartment
buildings are managed. In a neighborhood of single-family homes, each family
must bear the full cost of the material and labor required to build their
house. But in an apartment building, the costs of individual apartments — for example, the price for plumbing and electricity — can be spread across
the whole complex. Burns wants to use the same model to manage IT at HHS.
Manager of Managers
It is more than just a matter of saving money. The apartment model has
the potential to simplify the management of the infrastructure, which goes
right to the heart of the Clinger-Cohen Act, PDD 63 and other recent government
initiatives that have required large-scale efforts for compliance.
The EIM blueprint is a pyramid of management functions required to keep
large organizations up and running: for example, network and systems management,
software distribution and inventory management, security management and
asset management. All functions are linked to an integrated monitor at the
top (see chart, Page 24).
Burns said he envisions providing all 13 HHS divisions with a common
set of management functions, each of which feed data to, and receive information
from, a central system at headquarters — what some industry experts have
termed a "manager of managers" scheme.
EIM "maintains our decentralized environment [but] gives us a way to
roll up information headquarters," Burns said. "We can maintain the autonomy
[of the individual divisions] but do it in a structured way."
The ramifications for IT management are numerous.
Consider the security requirements of PDD 63. At present, with each
HHS operating division manning its own cyber-defenses, no individual organization,
including HHS headquarters, has a clear picture of what is happening in
The problem was apparent when the "love bug" — a computer virus that
attacked e-mail systems and stole passwords worldwide — struck earlier this
year. HHS was lucky. Its computers turned back more than 3 million e-mail
love bugs, with only a few making it into the system, Burns said.
Nevertheless, HHS found it had no way to warn its separate units because
it had no central way to spread the word. If Burns can bring his vision
to life, such paralysis will be a thing of the past. With EIM, HHS will
have a clear picture of what is happening and a system for getting the word
out. "We're changing the culture in terms of collaboration," he said.
Also, through asset management, HHS will be better equipped to track
what defenses it has in place and where. Asset management is a key element
of Clinger-Cohen and a central component of PDD 63 because "if we don't
know what we have, we can't secure it," Burns said. Through security event
management, HHS will have a better idea of how its systems are performing.
EIM will also better position HHS to plan its investments in IT and
to understand its returns, as required by the Clinger-Cohen Act. The project
includes a plan for tracking products throughout the procurement cycle,
beginning with the moment a product is ordered — what Burns calls a "cradle-to-grave"
view of every product the agency purchases.
By tracking product shipping, distribution and performance, HHS will
be able to track how much money it spends on technology acquisition and
maintenance — or the total cost of ownership.
Simultaneously, HHS will begin defining performance measures for its
major projects, and in some cases, it will set up service level agreements,
in which contractors must meet specific measures to get paid.
By measuring costs and performance, the department can begin to make
the kind of strategic investments Congress was looking for when it passed
Clinger-Cohen. For example, once it has a clear picture of what products
are being used where, HHS will be able to arrange enterprise licenses, or
volume deals, that would provide significant savings.
A Radical Change That is Needed
EIM, in many ways, is a radical proposal. But most officials involved
in the Washington IT bubble say radical change is needed. It is no longer
acceptable to build on top of old systems, patching a single pothole here
or disconnecting a lone piece of a system there when an aging network turns
"It's a superb plan," said Alan Balutis, director of the Advanced Technology
Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who saw Burns
present the plan in May at the CIO Summit conference in Savannah, Ga. "I
think it [shows] every indication of being a real model for others."
Whatever the specifics, the idea of centralizing IT management certainly
has appeal, other agency executives said.
Agencies need a central plan, said Roger Baker, chief information officer
at the Commerce Department. This isn't so important in some areas, such
as a unique business plan, but in others, such as infrastructure, attention
must be paid to everything from the process to the metrics.
"Some things should always be centralized," Baker said. "Infrastructure — including data centers, networks, help desks and a bunch of other things — [is] best done once, very well, for the entire enterprise."
But in any organization that does not yet have a firmly established
and productive process, Baker said he would favor more central IT management.
Several government agencies are beginning to take that route — including
Commerce, where there is a hybrid structure. Bureau CIOs at agencies such
as the Customs Department and the Census Bureau report to both the department's
CIO and the chief financial officer.
At the very least, centralized planning provides a good opportunity
to improve procurement, as numerous organizations have figured out, said
Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., Chantilly,
The Air Force has made centralization work, selecting two companies
to offer laptop computers across the service. Not only does it drive down
costs, but "it is a great way to standardize," Mather said. "Now you have
a program manager and a company worrying to death how happy you are."
For the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet project — a multibillion-dollar program
that would tie together the department and outsource its IT infrastructure
to a single contractor — senior Navy officials are trying something similar.
They have pitched the program as the only way the service can simplify the
process of buying, managing and operating network services.
The Navy currently oversees 24 networks that are owned and operated
by different commands and priorities. N/MCI would create a single network
under which the Navy can enforce standards and streamline initiatives.
While it is certainly important to look inward for solutions, Steve
Cochran, vice president for technology at the Council for Excellence in
Government, warned that important components may not be easily fixed.
"Everything may be streamlined to the nth degree," he said. "Now we
have super-well-wired stovepipes. The question is, how do these agencies
provide seamless services, and is this going to enable it to occur?"
Standardization still must be done selectively, said Renny DiPentima,
president of SRA International Inc.'s government sector and the former commissioner
for systems at the Social Security Administration. "It is always difficult
for a large department to centralize their IT," Di-Pentima said. "If HHS
could, it would wind up being one of the world's largest systems."