A new shape for government

People often speak of the federal government as a single organization: a vast, complex, yet distinct entity.

Perhaps it appears so from the outside, but individual departments and agencies have always been just that — individual. Each has its own way of working, serves its particular audience and maintains its own systems and databases. This arrangement, which makes sense for agencies in their daily work, has become a prime concern because of the new focus on homeland security.

Whatever their individual missions, agencies now are expected to work together whenever necessary on homeland security initiatives. "Information sharing" is the mantra. This very issue was an impetus behind the Bush administration's recent decision to propose merging many federal offices into a new Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department.

Still, nine months after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, it's all too clear that information sharing, however compelling the motive, doesn't come easy. Almost everyone understands the mandate, but they are not sure how to make it happen. In some cases, in fact, agencies are still in the process of identifying the opportunities for information sharing.

This issue of Federal Computer Week's Homeland Security quarterly report looks at several areas where progress, however tentative, has been made.

The State Department's knowledge management system is perhaps the best example of what people think of when they talk about homeland security and information sharing. It's an ambitious project that will make it possible for embassies, consulates and other government offices around the world to share information about applicants before issuing visas.

In its attempt to build this virtual community, State and other agencies must first dismantle cultural barriers that have long obstructed the flow of information. If successful, the project could serve as an example for other agencies to follow.

In a similar vein, a recent initiative in Seattle may provide a model for broader cooperation between federal and local government agencies. It focuses on giving public safety agencies — the "first responders" in most crises — access to invaluable federal resources. Officials at the state level, meanwhile, are making their case for more financial support from the federal government.

This special report also chronicles recent developments in the technology industry that could aid information sharing initiatives by improving the interoperability of critical systems. Mapping applications, biometric systems and wireless communications are all benefiting from the emergence of standards that eventually will make it easier to pass information from system to system.

The portrait that emerges in this issue shows a field very much in its infancy. But it also reveals areas where progress is being made that eventually could help the federal government take the new shape that homeland security requires.

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