Karen Evans | Communication concerns hit home

Evans is the Office of Management and Budget’s administrator of E-government and IT

Like most people, Karen Evans had a difficult time making phone calls in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

“I only got one phone call out that day,” from her office in Washington’s Chinatown, where she was working within the Justice Department’s Office of Justice Programs.

Local telephone and cellular networks were jammed, keeping her from calling home to West Virginia.

“So my whole family was wondering where I was,” said Evans, who now serves as the Office of Management and Budget’s administrator of E-government and IT. “My son was only 10 and my daughter was 7. They weren’t quite sure [how I was], they just knew I was in D.C. They were very worried. What worked was our e-mail.”

For Evans, the need for communication, whether between and within agencies, among state and local governments, and, most importantly, within the family, was the primary lesson learned in the aftermath of Sept. 11.

While the government has made strides over the past five years, communication is still where the most progress is needed, she said.

“It is one of those things where your biggest strength also ends up being your biggest weakness,” she said. “Governmentwide communication [is that] ability to communicate and make sure that [disaster recovery and continuity-of-operations] plans are up to date, that we have the most recent information, that we have the ability to contact the workers so they know what evacuation plans they’re supposed to follow.”

In particular, Evans highlighted two of the original e-government projects that have bolstered the nation’s communications ability—the Safecom wireless project being run by the Homeland Security Department and disaster management.

Safecom, she said, has helped agencies procure wireless devices that meet certain standards, while the government’s efforts with disaster management have provided a template for communication that several state and local governments—most notably the city of Los Angeles—have implemented as well.

She also said that the E-Authentication initiative took greater importance after the Sept. 11 attacks. Although the government has always tried to improve security in and around federal buildings, this task became even more crucial after President Bush signed Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12 in August 2004, calling for an interoperable physical and logical access system for all federal employees and contractors.

HSPD-12 “really capitalized on a lot of activities that were underway,” she said. “Everyone [had been saying], ‘wouldn’t it be great, I don’t have to carry five different badges.’ After 9-11 … the president gave us a really defined timeline of when he wanted the activity to occur and why we needed to improve the security.”

Although she believes the government has come a long way since Sept. 11, Evans is most heartened by the lessons her family learned in the immediate days following the attacks.

At the time, Evans said, her family “had no idea what I did for a living.” Working for a small division like OJP—which among other things, offers assistance to crime victims and local law enforcement—does not always translate into easy conversations.

But when she found herself helping put together data collection forms as part of the Public Safety Officers Benefits Program to assist New York’s police and fire department officials’ families, her work became national news.

The pace was fast and furious, and Evans was unaware of its broader significance until late one night, after her husband watched news reports detailing the president’s decision to send unprecedented federal aid and benefits to New York City.

“It was phenomenal because we were responsible for the forms” needed to process the loans, she said. “It was really interesting because when I’d get home, I’d tell my husband that I’m wasn’t sure what I was working on. And my husband would say, ‘If you watch this, this is what you were doing.’ My family really got to see direct results [of my work]. They got to see how my work impacted directly on some of the things the government was responding to in that particular case. It brought a lot of meaning to them about public service.”

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