Leavitt sees interoperability

Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association

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We may be moving past the Information Age and entering the early stages of the Interoperability Era.

That's what Michael Leavitt, the Department of Health and Human Services' secretary, thinks is happening right now. As it's organizing into networks, the world is entering a new economic era, or the interoperability age, which "I believe is the next frontier of human productivity," he said.

Leavitt delivered the keynote speech at AFCEA International's homeland security conference in Washington, D.C., today.

A former Utah governor well known for his knowledge and use of technology in state government, Leavitt said interoperability is important to the economy and homeland security because it will create efficiencies and improvements in society. He said the critical question is how to get people to work together. Collaboration, he added, is the premium leadership skill that's needed in this new era.

That's because interoperability begins with setting standards. But there are three ways they emerge. The federal government can prescribe them. They can also be established by the most dominant standard, or the "last vendor standing," he said. But those ways will fail, Leavitt said. Rather, interoperability should be organically grown through the "messy, complex, difficult process called collaboration," he said.

"Any enterprise that is trying to plot its way right now in the Interoperability Age has a finite amount of time, capital and opportunities," he said. Leavitt listed several elements that he believes will improve the chances of success for any project:

* A "common pain" or common problem that provides a compelling reason for stakeholders to come together and find a solution.

* A "convener of stature," meaning that a well-respected person or group would bring varied interests to the table.

* A committed leader to be an honest broker and to keep things on track

* Openness, transparency and voluntary participation.

* A critical mass of stakeholders.

* Representatives of substance, who have sufficient authority and decision-making ability.

* A clearly defined purpose and goal.

* A formally written charter that outlines governance structure, outcomes, funding contributions and is signed by the highest levels of the participating agencies.

Leavitt, who was the Environmental Protection Agency administrator before assuming his new duties at HHS, said any such projects have to be sped up and made more efficient. It took seven and a half years to create a statewide interoperability communications system in Utah -- twice as long as U.S. involvement in World War II, Leavitt said.

Creating electronic health records will also improve health care and lower costs, Leavitt said, adding that it will also be an economic opportunity that the United States cannot afford to miss. Similarly, he said the nation can't wait seven years for every homeland security project to mature.

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