Managers peg e-gov, culture as top concerns

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Despite the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, federal information technology managers consider building an e-government that better serves the public as their thorniest issue to manage, according to an annual survey released last week.

Eighty chief information officers and senior technology officials at federal agencies ranked "using IT to improve service to customers, stakeholders and citizens" as their most pressing concern in the sixth annual survey of top challenges facing federal IT managers, which the Association for Federal Information Resources Management (AFFIRM) released Dec. 3. The survey was conducted in October.

"Satisfying the customer is tremendously important now," said Robert Golas, co-chairman of the AFFIRM survey and executive director of business development for Oracle Federal. "That's what the survey is reflecting."

A related concern, "making the business and cultural changes necessary for full e-government transformation" — a new survey category this year — ranked second. Security fell to fifth in the survey from third place last year, while hiring and retaining skilled workers — the top challenge for the past two years — dropped to No. 3.

The issue of how to convince workers to think more about pleasing customers has risen to the fore this year because most federal IT managers who previously introduced the concept are now actively implementing it, several CIOs and federal IT experts said.

"We're asking people who have been in positions where they're proces.sing forms and conducting a process- oriented activity to move toward responding to customers and their needs. That requires a very different skill set," said Dave McClure, director of IT management issues at the General Accounting Office.

Once an e-government project has been under way for several months, the depth of the cultural change becomes clearer, said Lee Holcomb, CIO of NASA, which spends one of the largest percentages of its discretionary budget on IT.

"There's a term for this: 'The valley of death,'" Holcomb said. "Most proj.ects [involving cultural change] go through a nine-month period where the people affected by the change hate it and trash the project. Then, as you get people trained in the new way, and they see the benefits of it, they finally come around."

But Ira Hobbs, Agriculture Department CIO and past AFFIRM president, cautioned against interpreting the new rankings to mean that security isn't as important as it once was. "Once you get into the top 10, relative rank doesn't mean a whole lot," Hobbs said.

Officials added five questions to the survey after Sept. 11, and the answers to them show that IT managers have an increased sense of urgency about "all matters related to IT security," the survey concluded.

More than 50 responses were offered, for example, to the question that asked federal IT managers about their concerns regarding the vulnerability of their agency's IT infrastructure in the wake of the attacks.

Managers noted that they worry about "poor departmental coordination and collaboration of security initiatives," the "lack of IT security expertise" and the susceptibility of their systems to denial-of-service attacks.

Other concerns included whether enough backup power for critical systems would be available in an emergency and whether federal networks are secure enough to ensure access for mobile or telecommuting workers.

"The results of the special survey questions highlight the need for a well-thought-out federal and department IT infrastructure protection policy and strong leadership," the survey concluded.

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A list of concerns

In a recent survey conducted by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, federal chief information officers and senior information technology managers listed their top 10 concerns:

2001 Ranking (last year's rank in parentheses)

1. Using IT to improve service to customers, stakeholders and citizens. (8)

2. Making the business and cultural changes necessary for full e-government transformation. (NA)

3. Hiring and retaining skilled professionals. (1)

4. Obtaining adequate funding for IT programs and projects. (4)

5. Preventing unauthorized system intrusions. (3)

6. Formulating or implementing an agency IT architecture. (6)

7. Building effective relationships in support of IT initiatives with agency senior executives. (7)

8. Capturing, organizing and making accessible agency knowledge and expertise (knowledge management). (8)

9. Simplifying business processes to maximize the benefits of technology. (10)

10. Unifying "islands of automation," or separate systems for separate units, within lines of business. (NA)

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