Proposed office on shaky ground

Congress may be thinking about cutting a key information- sharing technology initiative out of the fiscal 2003 budget, but it must be performed somewhere by some part of government, experts say.

The Bush administration proposed creating the Information Integration Office in February as part of the homeland security effort. The office, which would design and help roll out an information architecture that would enable agencies to share information across their technology systems, is supposed to be located at the Critical Infrastructure Assurance Office in the Commerce Department.

The office's role would include helping identify the appropriate technology standards and enforcing their use across the government, administration officials said in February.

No matter what happens with the proposed Homeland Security Department, "eventually, we're going to have to do this integration," said James Lewis, director of technology and public policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But the way things are looking in Congress, the office may never exist, according to Steve Cooper, senior director of information integration and chief information officer for the Office of Homeland Security.

Earlier this year, Congress removed the funding request from the fiscal 2002 supplemental funding bill submitted by the White House, so the Bush administration placed the funding request for the office in its fiscal 2003 budget released in February.

But now Congress is getting ready to cut the administration's request for the second time "because they don't think it can be done," Cooper said Aug. 19 at the Government Symposium on Information Sharing and Homeland Security in Philadelphia.

This move has raised concerns in industry as well as the administration. One industry group moved quickly to speak with members in the House and Senate, but so far the response has not been terribly encouraging, said an official who asked not to be named.

The House apparently has cut the $20 million request in its entirety, and although the Senate is keeping the money, it will be used for an altogether different purpose — to increase public/ private partnerships.

Meanwhile, both sides seem surprised that industry is concerned about the fate of the office, the industry official said.

Private-sector leaders must step forward and show their support for the administration's plans for the office, the official said. But most importantly, industry officials must help Congress understand that the information integration standards that will potentially come out of this office are important not only to the proposed Homeland Security Department, but also to efforts to create an e-government, he said.

However, even if the office does not exist, "someone else will pick up the function," Lewis said. The administration may not be satisfied with a different structure for the proposed department, but the government will still need to establish integration standards, he said.

Part of the problem may be that although the executive branch has been slowly but surely moving toward enterprise management of its functions — particularly for information technology — they have not done a good job selling the idea to Congress, according to Lewis.

"I think some of it is Congress just not understanding the requirements for what you're going to need to make an information-based approach work," he said.

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