Reform, but follow the rules

The notion of breaking down agency stovepipes is taking hold within the federal government, with the departments of Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development and Veterans Affairs unveiling their blueprints for information technology.

Enterprise IT architecture, the bureaucratic name for these blueprints, is catching on even at the Defense Department, where IT planning — according to various reports issued by the General Accounting Office and inspectors general — is haphazard and ineffective. But in recent weeks, Air Force and Army officials have unveiled their intentions to transform IT.

The Air Force announced July 31 its intent to use network technology from Cisco Systems Inc. at all its bases. A lack of uniform IT purchases over the past decade has made it difficult for the Air Force to build and support its service.wide network, the Combat Information Transport System.

The Army wants a broader consolidation of IT assets. For starters, the service is considering putting one organization in charge of operating and maintaining its IT infrastructure. And it is consolidating all IT funds — except those allocated for acquisition programs — under the control of its chief information officer.

Unlike the Air Force, the Army hasn't identified any specific IT products or vendors as part of its "infostructure" transformation. Top officials in both services have asked for industry comment before finalizing their plans.

The move toward a standardized IT infrastructure is a good one, and the services did the right thing by spelling out their enterprise IT architecture plans. Such plans establish standards for core IT components, including hardware, operating systems and core desktop applications, in addition to communications protocols to exchange data.

The Air Force's decision to identify Cisco Systems as the de facto front-runner for its switches may be a stumbling block. Still, the idea of setting standards for common platforms is sound. That will allow all those bases to get better deals and make it easier to get servicewide IT programs up and running.

But, as some critics have noted, the best route to better prices is open and fair competition.

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