Focus on cooperation

To meet the intense demands of homeland security and the war on terrorism, the Defense Department and civilian agencies are turning to the commercial sector to fill gaps where government just does not have the capability or resources. The latest example is the Bush administration's policy to buy certain satellite imagery from the private sector.

The idea is to require agencies to buy commercial satellite images that support programs and operations that are not classified. In so doing, government satellite providers would be freed to collect images to support classified programs. The hope is to deliver more up-to-date maps — many in use now are decades old — and to avoid disasters such as the accidental bombing of the Chinese embassy in Belgrade in 1999 during the air war in Yugoslavia.

DOD and the CIA will work together to determine which functions could be supported by purchasing commercially available images and which should be kept in-house. The administration has asked NASA and the Commerce and Interior departments to do the same for civilian agencies. The policy also asks civilian agencies to work with DOD's National Imagery and Mapping Agency to purchase data.

Cooperation in buying imagery data sounds like a good idea. But for practical purposes, cooperation among agencies — especially between civilian and defense agencies — has rarely worked. Simply encouraging agencies to coordinate purchases will not change decades of isolationist behavior.

The new policy also will require Congress to properly fund the purchases, which could overwhelm budgets. A tenfold increase in NIMA's fiscal 2003 budget to buy commercial satellite imagery is still not enough to meet its demands, according to officials.

Relying on the commercial sector, with appropriate safeguards, is a wise move to try to meet increasing demands. But that alone will not work. The true challenge facing the Bush administration and career information technology managers will be working together.


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