Editorial: Follow the leader

Arecent memo to the CIO Council from members of its Federal Identity and Credentialing Committee recommends that federal agencies use smart cards for employee identification. Such an approach is long overdue.

As the Defense Department's Common Access Card program has demonstrated, smart cards are a good investment.

DOD's program relies on a multifunction smart card that provides physical access to buildings, allows users to access computer networks and can serve as the authentication token for DOD's computerized public-key infrastructure. In most cases, the program has reduced the number of ID cards employees and service members need to do their jobs.

By adopting a governmentwide smart card, civilian agencies could learn from DOD's approach and simplify the process for controlling access to government systems and facilities.

Scores of agencies have taken steps toward a common card. In November 2002, the General Accounting Office identified 62 smart card initiatives under way at 18 agencies, with different security clearance processes and access controls. A governmentwide policy would streamline those programs.

GAO officials have long advocated creating a governmentwide credentialing policy to standardize how employees are cleared. No doubt, such a policy should ensure that there is a common set of guidelines for the cards, the credentials and their distribution.

But regardless of who leads this program, the first task should be visiting with DOD's access card program managers. Ample lessons can be learned from their experiences.

They faced many of the cultural hurdles that civilian agencies are likely to encounter. They have also greatly improved the processes for distributing cards and educating users. Those lessons will be invaluable if the governmentwide policy moves forward.

There is also the larger question of cost. Many costs are associated with access cards, not the least of which is the card itself. In addition, there is the hardware, software and middleware needed to make the cards fully usable.

The DOD card has given the agency a common framework.

A top-down approach to a governmentwide card should give all the other agencies those same benefits.

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