Folding 13 systems into one

A new plan is taking shape at the Department of Health and Human Services to overhaul its obsolete information technology systems and consolidate them in a single enterprise — saving money, time and the frustration of not being able to communicate within its massive infrastructure.

HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson approved the Enterprise Infrastructure Management (EIM) plan May 31. It would turn 13 decentralized systems into a single, streamlined system at the largest civilian agency in the world.

The former Wisconsin governor acted only five months into his tenure in the Bush administration after his own experience convinced him that HHS urgently needed a "single corporate enterprise" — something like turning urban sprawl into a planned community.

"It's easier to walk up the steps and deliver a message than go on e-mail," he told the Senate Budget Committee March 6. The e-mail system at HHS takes a circuitous route through three different networks before arriving at its destination.

In a memo to HHS division heads, Thompson said IT is the "key to providing better services at reduced costs and is the foundation for efforts to re-engineer HHS."

He ordered an EIM plan to be submitted once a year — this year by Aug. 1 — that would spell out how to consolidate the systems. He wants the department's financial management systems and human resources departments consolidated and centralized as well.

"It's very difficult to run a department where all the divisions have different computer systems," Thompson told the Senate Budget Committee. His next task will be persuading lawmakers to provide the funds to enact the changes.

The details of carrying out the IT consolidation fall to Janet Hale, nominated to be HHS's chief information officer. She faces a formidable task in harnessing technology at an agency that deals with everything from approving new prescription drugs to providing health care for the elderly and poor.

While the department currently spends more than $1.5 billion a year on IT, the 13 HHS agencies operate their IT with different mandates, like a loose federation of fiefdoms.

"Current infrastructure management at HHS is best described as an ad hoc set of processes, systems, automated tools and business rules," according to the December 2000 EIM business plan. The existing system "reacts to crises and changing priorities rather than preventing crises."

Among the problems: There are 283 mission-critical systems and 2,000 HHS Web sites with 400 Webmasters. Each agency has invested in its own software and hardware systems over the past 10 years, building them with no thought of integration with other HHS agencies.

The current EIM business plan calls for spending $75 million over three years to unify the systems using off-the-shelf products and outside contracts. It estimates the payback as $342 million in savings over five years.

"We are very much into outsourcing as much as we can," said Brian Burns, HHS deputy chief information officer, author of the business plan and the leading proponent of EIM.

HHS officials have selected three product lines to carry out the mission — Tivoli Systems Inc.'s Enterprise Management Framework and modules, Peregrine Systems Inc.'s Asset Management and Service Center and Microsoft Corp.'s Windows 2000. The products have been tested in pilot projects across HHS, but phasing in the new system and retiring the old one could take up to three years, according to the plan.

Gartner Inc., a market research and consulting company, also said that a new security system, built on Tivoli products, would reduce by 35 percent the number of successful attacks by hackers.

"EIM is the cornerstone to automating and enhancing HHS technology so that its business objectives may be met," Burns wrote in the plan. "HHS has begun a comprehensive effort to improve the quality, effectiveness, timeliness and fairness of services provided to millions of people served by the department."

Alan Balutis, executive director of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils, which represents the interests of IT professionals worldwide, said many people "don't see the benefits of talking across the department," but Thompson's support will be instrumental in getting money from Congress and activating the plans.

"I was really impressed with the secretary's grasp of technology for transforming HHS into a more corporate enterprise," Balutis said. "If Secretary Thompson is willing to advocate his support, then it has a much better chance."

EIM meets the goals of several congressional mandates on IT. It would improve customer service and provide real-time business information and integrated reporting across agency lines similar to the private sector. The Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 requires agencies to approach IT spending as an "investment" that has demonstrable returns — an elusive goal for most agencies so far.

Nevertheless, Congress has been stingy in appropriating funds to overhaul the HHS IT system. In fiscal 2000, it earmarked $2.5 million when officials estimated they needed $25 million to get the project off the ground. In fiscal 2001, there was no money, and it remains to be seen if Congress will come up with any funding for fiscal 2002.

"Other agencies are rivals for funding," Balutis said. "And technology is a challenge. Do we fund administrative initiatives or do we put our money into serving customers in a more direct fashion?"

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