DHS asks for business help

Homeland Security Department officials appealed to information technology vendors this week to help them solve the department's interoperability problems by offering more than technical assistance.

Under growing pressure from lawmakers to make the department more cohesive, DHS chief information officers said technology companies could help by proposing business ideas that officials could use as they try to merge the department’s 22 agencies into an effective organization.

"Interoperability is not simply a technical issue," said Scott Hastings, CIO for the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program, which keeps track of foreign visitors entering and leaving the United States.

The business and policy challenges of achieving interoperability are proving to be the most difficult, Hastings said, speaking in Washington, D.C., at the FOSE government IT conference. He appealed to companies that want to sell IT products and services to DHS to offer their help in overcoming budgeting and contracting obstacles, for example, which have proved more difficult than many anticipated.

The latest evidence of continuing challenges facing the two-year-old department is the departure of Steve Cooper, CIO of DHS, who announced April 6 that he would be leaving his job later this month.

Despite frequent criticism of the department's IT integration problems, DHS has made significant progress in achieving interoperability, said Lee Holcomb, the department's chief technology officer. DHS agencies have been using the department's enterprise architecture documents to make IT spending decisions that promote interoperability, Holcomb said.

DHS is now developing Web services standards for various components of its architecture. Holcomb said the standards will help agencies with financial or other concerns to continue using some of the systems and networks they purchased before the merger.

A Web services standard "is a technical way for us to take existing systems and make them look new," Holcomb said.

As the department struggles to create an effective security organization in which its internal agencies share networks and data centers, it faces a common dilemma, Hastings said. How do you manage an infrastructure that belongs to everyone and therefore belongs to no one? he asked.

"We need help with how to build that environment and manage it," he added.

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