DHS sets tech priorities

Department of Homeland Security

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Information sharing, information security improvement and creation of one technology infrastructure are some of the top priorities that chief information officers from the Homeland Security Department have agreed upon for 2004.

Lee Holcomb, DHS's chief technology officer, outlined eight priorities that the DHS CIO Council agreed to during an offsite meeting two weeks ago. The other five priorities are mission rationalization, enterprise architecture, portfolio management, governance and information technology human resources.

Barry West, the Federal Emergency Management Agency's CIO, said the priorities, which mushroomed to the top, were so obvious and significant that there wasn't a whole lot of debate on them. "These priorities really came to the top, to the forefront," he said.

West, Holcomb and Patrick Schambach, the Transportation Security Administration's assistant administrator for information technology, were panelists today at AFCEA's Washington, D.C., chapter luncheon to talk about the department's accomplishments and challenges.

Although they didn't rank priorities, they did describe upcoming projects and some areas that needed improvement. For example, IT security within the department has been scored low within the federal government. "Can't go any lower, but we can go a lot higher," Holcomb said.

Mission rationalization priority, he said, will help evaluate the cost-effectiveness and performance of certain IT systems. The second version of the department's enterprise architecture plan likely will be unveiled this summer, he said.

For information sharing, West said DHS has allocated $12 million to roll out 12 to 24 pilot projects nationwide to test vertical and horizontal sharing across governments. Officials from DHS, FEMA and the FBI are collaborating on an information sharing network called DHS INFO that will create a portal to share data between federal, state and local agencies around the clock.

The priorities are integrated with one another and should help streamline systems, officials said. For example, portfolio management, enterprise architecture and capital investment will have to work in conjunction with each other and in the IT governance structure.

"When you have a well-oiled machine and you're using those things like they should be with [enterprise architecture board] in the middle, that's when you see the benefits of eliminating redundant systems and so on," West said.

DHS management officials haven't approved the CIOs' priorities, but it's likely to be accepted, Holcomb added.

Each panelist talked about the accomplishments and challenges ahead for each of their agencies, including lessons learned. All said that DHS officials viewed IT as an enabler for the department's mission.

Before the department was even established a year ago, Holcomb, who was with the White House Office of Homeland Security, said he and his colleagues met with industry officials, including Hewlett-Packard Co. chief executive officer Carly Fiorina, to talk about acquisitions and mergers. He said common themes emerged from those meetings.

For example, those themes include constant communication with employees and the public, an adopt-and-go strategy in which you don't waste time thinking about a solution but implement it and then refine it, and lastly, installing a full-time integration team, which is something that is still being worked on, Holcomb said.

Schambach said TSA is particularly unique because it was newly formed and recruited new federal employees. It had 37 mandates to deal with, which at first were hated. But looking back, "we quickly learned to love those mandates at the same time. Boy did it keep us focused," he said.

Technology was not an immediate priority but a desirable one, when TSA was first formed, but some officials called it a culture creator, meaning that it could be used in a way to reach out to the 60,000 or so employees to communicate with them, Schambach said.

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