A time for reflection

Employees at those agencies in the thick of federal efforts to beef up homeland security and thwart terrorism have run nonstop since last year's Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, according to accounts throughout the year.

"Our team has literally been working seven days a week since last fall," Transportation Department Secretary Norman Mineta said in a July speech, uttering a common refrain. With the recent anniversary of the attacks, Federal Computer Week has asked some information technology officials to reflect on how their jobs have changed.

According to their comments, they face several new management challenges. For some, that means putting in extra time; for others, it means building a new agency. There are safety measures to get off the ground and information-sharing needs to meet. But regardless of the individual or department, a general theme has emerged: The status quo has been abandoned. Careers have taken dramatic turns. Priorities have shifted. Lessons have been learned.

Ronald Miller had been deputy chief information officer at the Federal Emergency Management Agency for less than four months when planes crashed into the Pentagon, the World Trade Center and a field in Pennsylvania. By October 2001, Miller was CIO, and FEMA — a 2,600-employee agency that responded to 45 major catastrophes in 2001, including earthquakes, floods and tornadoes — had taken center stage in the war against terrorism.

"The hours certainly have been longer," Miller said Sept. 3. "It was a safe bet that I could join my family for dinner [before]. That hasn't been the case over the past year." But more so than bags under his eyes, the steadiest reminder that things aren't business as usual is the agency's unremitting state of readiness.

"There's an ebb and flow to natural disasters," he said. "We know, at least in general terms, when [one] could occur. Terrorism, of course, is a constant threat, and because of that, we've had to be vigilant 100 percent of the time."

Also because of that constant threat, President Bush unveiled his plan to create a Cabinet-level Homeland Security Department in June. Almost immediately, Miller began working with a team of federal IT officials on the proposed department's IT architecture and in August became a member of the Bush administration's Transition Planning Office, leaving FEMA, an agency slated to go into the homeland security mix.

In his old post, he had already started looking at the bigger picture. "We've had to become more involved in the federal, state and local IT communities, which is a good thing no matter how you look at it," he said.

Lessons for the proposed department are coming from another new organization, the Transportation Security Administration, which Bush established when he signed aviation security legislation in November 2001 and which Patrick Schambach, assistant director and CIO for the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms' Office of Science and Technology, jumped at the opportunity to join.

Now as the fledgling agency's associate undersecretary for information and security technology and CIO, Schambach has one goal: to secure the nation's transportation systems.

"Obviously, with the move from ATF to TSA back in January, my job has changed dramatically since [Sept. 11]," Schambach said in an e-mail Sept 3. "I came to TSA out of a desire to do something to help the recovery from the impacts of [the attacks], and also out of the challenge and tremendous opportunity to create an organization and the technology to support it from scratch, with a blank sheet of paper to work from. I was employee No. 6 in what is already an organization of over 20,000 people."

Schambach has several priorities:

* Attract senior IT professionals.

* Engage an IT industry partner to build TSA's IT infrastructure.

* Design an architecture that encourages information sharing horizontally and vertically.

With those priorities in mind, the first two work orders for TSA's billion- dollar Information Technology Managed Services (ITMS) program were awarded last month. Unisys Corp. was selected as the prime contractor.

ITMS, which emphasizes managed services, a relatively new procurement strategy in which an agency pays a company for technology solutions that help fulfill goals defined by its mission, has received cautious praise from the federal IT community.

Sept. 11 "has been a huge change agent to become more effective and find new ways of doing business," said Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., a support contractor to TSA.

It's not just those officials working at agencies directly tied to homeland security who have been forced to make adjustments. Bruce Brody, cybersecurity chief for the Department of Veterans Affairs, said that "one of the things that [has] changed since Sept. 11 is we've prioritized our cybersecurity problem."

Brody came to the VA from the Defense Department in March 2001. His "No. 1 priority is to protect the boundary of our enterprise from external attack. Other government agencies look at things you have to protect against internal threat. [Here], we're convinced that it's the external threat.

"There's evidence all the time, sometimes ambiguous, sometimes a hit from one of the countries on the bad guy list. [I] try to trace it down, [which is] not easy to do across international borders," he said. The agency's "overall posture is very heightened."

Efforts throughout the public sector, in addition to boosting cybersecurity, have taken on a new significance. "Before, interoperability was desirable, now it is critical," said Marion Royal, the General Services Administration's expert on Extensible Markup Language.

"Before, information reuse and exchange was cost-effective, now it's life-saving," he said. "Our leaders now have a vision of combining our resources in a manner that will allow us to be prepared for whatever challenges we are confronted with.

"It is now our job to find the most effective means of combining these resources. XML continues to be the leading candidate for data and information interoperability and will be a key enabler on the e-gov and homeland security initiatives."

In times like these, it helps to be adaptable. "So how has my job changed? I think it's not so much a change, but rather a refocusing of priorities," Royal concluded.

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