DOJ strategic tech plan spells out major change

A "strategic" technology plan being circulated through the Justice Department last week says that the department can no longer tolerate 39 separate "fiefdoms," each "doing their own thing" with computer systems and networks.

Vance Hitch, the department's new chief information officer, said he is determined to craft an agencywide information technology architecture and require that new computer systems be used by several, and in some cases by all, divisions within the department.

It's the kind of reform IT experts say is needed, but likely will be hard to implement at the department, which is notorious for the independence and insularity of its subsidiary agencies, such as the FBI, the Immigration and Naturalization Service and the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Three months into his job, Hitch, who spent 28 years at the consulting firm now known as Accenture, depicts the department as a fragmented agency hobbled by aged computers and incompatible systems.

The security of the department's computer systems is so bad that Hitch said he wanted to hire a deputy CIO and a cadre of IT security specialists whose sole focus would be to fix "security holes."

"There are hundreds or thousands of them" in the department's computer systems, Hitch said. To say that security must be improved "is an understatement," he said, speaking at a breakfast sponsored by Federal Sources Inc., a market research firm in McLean, Va. Security is so poor it would be "very easy to take out a lot of our infrastructure."

The FBI, one of the department's most technologically troubled, is ill prepared to deal with IT security holes, he said. "They did not even have a good handle on how many systems they had," let alone what their security problems are, Hitch said.

The state of security "is embarrassing," he said.

Poor security and many other IT problems can be traced to the department's organization and its lack of a departmentwide IT architecture, Hitch said.

The department comprises 39 agencies, from such well-known ones as INS and the FBI to lesser-known entities such as the National Institute of Corrections and the U.S. Parole Commission.

"They all did their own thing" when it came to developing computer and data systems, Hitch said. Even when they hired the same vendors to assemble similar systems, the various components did not end up with systems that were interoperable, he said.

"It is not the culture of the Justice Department" to operate as a single agency, he said. Computer and data systems "developed in 39 stovepipes with loose coordination, if any."

But the department has a new mission — counterterrorism — and President Bush and Attorney General John Ashcroft are emphasizing greater information sharing, increased information security, and a streamlined and simplified approach. The role for IT is being refocused to emphasize mission accomplishment, Hitch said.

The department plans to spend $2 billion on IT in 2003, and Hitch said he aimed to modernize and unify the department's IT infrastructure.

Hitch said that Ashcroft has assured him that he will have a degree of influence over the agencywide IT budget, but Hitch said he also wanted "to be a part of the components' IT process."

Making changes won't be easy, said Roger Baker, former CIO at the Commerce Department, and now an executive vice president at CACI International Inc.

Hitch's plan is "a great initial reaction," Baker said. "Any good private-sector person who comes into government would say exactly the same thing." But soon enough, "you figure out that the system is built exactly to prevent you from doing what you know you should do."

Alan Balutis, another veteran of government technology management, is a bit more optimistic. "It's doable," but only if Hitch can convince the department's agency directors and CIOs to support his plan, said Balutis, who is executive director of the Federation of Government Information Processing Councils.

Even then, change is likely to come slowly, said Balutis, who was a deputy CIO at Commerce and then director of the Advanced Technology Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology until early 2001.


Pulling it together

Among the goals Vance Hitch, chief information officer of the Justice Department, has for his department are:

* Developing a departmentwide public-key infrastructure to enable different agencies within the department to securely share information.

* Adopting common systems and solutions to facilitate collaboration.

* Saving money by adopting a departmentwide financial system.

* Searching for ways technology can change and improve department operations. In the past, technology has been adapted to operations.


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