DHS e-mail system ready to roll

The Homeland Security Department's common e-mail system is ready to roll this weekend, but officials have had trouble putting together the department's network infrastructure, said DHS chief technology officer Lee Holcomb.

"We're at the point where we're ready to pull the switch," Holcomb said, referring to the e-mail system while speaking April 23 at an executive forum sponsored by Computer Marketing Associates Inc.

Although the intranet is completed, integrating the systems of the 22 agencies that merged into the department in January has presented a challenge. DHS officials faced technical barriers with the legacy systems and cultural differences that complicated information sharing, Holcomb said.

"There really were few mechanisms to integrate information across agencies," he said. "One challenge is to integrate these agencies within the department under one goal."

Because DHS didn't have a detailed enterprise architecture when the department was launched Jan. 24, officials identified several guiding principles. One of those is creating a culture of information- and system-sharing, Holcomb said.

"We're throwing out a different model at DHS. Information generated by the department is property of the department" and should be accessible to the appropriate people in the department, Holcomb said. "It's turning the pyramid upside down. Instead of need-to-know, it's need-to-communicate, and we're making a few people uncomfortable with that."

Holcomb said another guiding principle has been finding a balance between homeland security and privacy, and noted that mechanisms are in place to strike that balance.

Since January, department officials have focused on several short-term projects, such as working with states to develop secure videoconference systems and working with the Justice Department to link to the Regional Information Sharing Systems network and the Law Enforcement Online network. Day-one infrastructure issues also have been a major focus, and officials looked to major private-sector mergers for lessons learned in communication, e-mail systems and dedicated integration teams.

"We use that as a guidance for our day-one efforts. Unfortunately, our Day One is like 60 days," Holcomb said.

Turning to year-one projects, Holcomb identified what he viewed as 10 key priorities within the department — although he said the list changes daily as priorities change. He mentioned the following as examples:

* The Computer Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II, which will perform background checks by combing government and commercial databases to assess the risk airline travelers pose.

* The Automated Commercial Environment, Customs' modernization plan designed to track cargo.

* An entry/exit system to track foreign visitors at ports of entry.

* The National Emergency Management Information System, which process disaster benefits.

Holcomb also listed several critical information technology projects in the department, such as smart cards for identifying all DHS employees, wireless communications, portal and content management solutions, a converged wide-area network, and e-learning initiatives.

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