An IT cure-all

Brian Burns doesn't look like a visionary. His office is strewn with paper, and his filing system is on the floor. But behind the chaos is an idea that may dramatically change how government agencies buy and manage technology.

Brian Burns doesn't look like a visionary. His office is strewn with paper,

and his filing system is on the floor. But behind the chaos is an idea that

may dramatically change how government agencies buy and manage technology.

Burns wants to tear down the bureaucratic walls at the Department of

Health and Human Services and change the way the largest civilian agency

in the world does business. And he wants to do it in one fell swoop.

"It's going to reduce our overall costs," Burns said. "It will enable

us to have standard policies, procedures and tools across the department."

The concept began to germinate in Burns' mind when he worked with information

systems at the Internal Revenue Service. He carried it with him when he

moved to HHS, where he is now the deputy chief information officer.

The project, known as Enterprise Infrastructure Management, is still

in its infancy, but Burns has drawn up numerous charts showing how EIM — through a complex mix of products, policies and management procedures — will affect nearly every aspect of the department's information technology

operations.

Those charts — with their confusing sprawl of lines, arrows and boxes — look to the casual observer like any number of technically complex policy

initiatives. But to Burns, this plan represents a real opportunity to overcome

some of the biggest IT management challenges facing HHS and other agencies — and to do it all at one time.

Burns said he believes, for example, that EIM could provide answers

to the Clinger-Cohen Act, which requires agencies to approach IT spending

as an "investment" that has demonstrable returns — an elusive goal, so far,

for most agencies.

EIM should also establish the framework for addressing Presidential

Decision Directive 63, which requires agencies to protect their critical

information systems against cyberattacks.

And the initiative should lay the groundwork for HHS agencies to move

more of their operations to the Internet, improving the services they deliver

to health care providers or the public.

Making IT a Utility

The EIM strategy contains individual elements that address those and

other challenges. But the overarching strategy is to develop such strong

controls at the top level of the department that people throughout various

HHS agencies can forget about the technology itself and focus on the business

at hand.

"We want to turn IT into a utility. People expect it to be here. The

lights work, the water runs and the PC works," Burns said.

For Burns, the challenge is especially daunting because of the decentralized

nature of HHS. The department includes 13 operating divisions that generally

run independently, like a loose federation of small, powerful fiefdoms (see

chart below).

That structure has evolved because each division has a unique mission.

The Food and Drug Administration, for example, serves a very different constituency

from the Health Care Financing Administration, which oversees the federal

Medicare and Medicaid programs for the elderly and poor.

Yet the decentralized structure has also resulted in the 13 divisions

setting up and running their own IT operations. Such redundancy can be unnecessary

and very costly.

The situation is not far different from the way houses and apartment

buildings are managed. In a neighborhood of single-family homes, each family

must bear the full cost of the material and labor required to build their

house. But in an apartment building, the costs of individual apartments — for example, the price for plumbing and electricity — can be spread across

the whole complex. Burns wants to use the same model to manage IT at HHS.

Manager of Managers

It is more than just a matter of saving money. The apartment model has

the potential to simplify the management of the infrastructure, which goes

right to the heart of the Clinger-Cohen Act, PDD 63 and other recent government

initiatives that have required large-scale efforts for compliance.

The EIM blueprint is a pyramid of management functions required to keep

large organizations up and running: for example, network and systems management,

software distribution and inventory management, security management and

asset management. All functions are linked to an integrated monitor at the

top (see chart, Page 24).

Burns said he envisions providing all 13 HHS divisions with a common

set of management functions, each of which feed data to, and receive information

from, a central system at headquarters — what some industry experts have

termed a "manager of managers" scheme.

EIM "maintains our decentralized environment [but] gives us a way to

roll up information headquarters," Burns said. "We can maintain the autonomy

[of the individual divisions] but do it in a structured way."

The ramifications for IT management are numerous.

Consider the security requirements of PDD 63. At present, with each

HHS operating division manning its own cyber-defenses, no individual organization,

including HHS headquarters, has a clear picture of what is happening in

other offices.

The problem was apparent when the "love bug" — a computer virus that

attacked e-mail systems and stole passwords worldwide — struck earlier this

year. HHS was lucky. Its computers turned back more than 3 million e-mail

love bugs, with only a few making it into the system, Burns said.

Nevertheless, HHS found it had no way to warn its separate units because

it had no central way to spread the word. If Burns can bring his vision

to life, such paralysis will be a thing of the past. With EIM, HHS will

have a clear picture of what is happening and a system for getting the word

out. "We're changing the culture in terms of collaboration," he said.

Also, through asset management, HHS will be better equipped to track

what defenses it has in place and where. Asset management is a key element

of Clinger-Cohen and a central component of PDD 63 because "if we don't

know what we have, we can't secure it," Burns said. Through security event

management, HHS will have a better idea of how its systems are performing.

EIM will also better position HHS to plan its investments in IT and

to understand its returns, as required by the Clinger-Cohen Act. The project

includes a plan for tracking products throughout the procurement cycle,

beginning with the moment a product is ordered — what Burns calls a "cradle-to-grave"

view of every product the agency purchases.

By tracking product shipping, distribution and performance, HHS will

be able to track how much money it spends on technology acquisition and

maintenance — or the total cost of ownership.

Simultaneously, HHS will begin defining performance measures for its

major projects, and in some cases, it will set up service level agreements,

in which contractors must meet specific measures to get paid.

By measuring costs and performance, the department can begin to make

the kind of strategic investments Congress was looking for when it passed

Clinger-Cohen. For example, once it has a clear picture of what products

are being used where, HHS will be able to arrange enterprise licenses, or

volume deals, that would provide significant savings.

A Radical Change That is Needed

EIM, in many ways, is a radical proposal. But most officials involved

in the Washington IT bubble say radical change is needed. It is no longer

acceptable to build on top of old systems, patching a single pothole here

or disconnecting a lone piece of a system there when an aging network turns

sour.

"It's a superb plan," said Alan Balutis, director of the Advanced Technology

Program at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, who saw Burns

present the plan in May at the CIO Summit conference in Savannah, Ga. "I

think it [shows] every indication of being a real model for others."

Whatever the specifics, the idea of centralizing IT management certainly

has appeal, other agency executives said.

Agencies need a central plan, said Roger Baker, chief information officer

at the Commerce Department. This isn't so important in some areas, such

as a unique business plan, but in others, such as infrastructure, attention

must be paid to everything from the process to the metrics.

"Some things should always be centralized," Baker said. "Infrastructure — including data centers, networks, help desks and a bunch of other things — [is] best done once, very well, for the entire enterprise."

But in any organization that does not yet have a firmly established

and productive process, Baker said he would favor more central IT management.

Several government agencies are beginning to take that route — including

Commerce, where there is a hybrid structure. Bureau CIOs at agencies such

as the Customs Department and the Census Bureau report to both the department's

CIO and the chief financial officer.

At the very least, centralized planning provides a good opportunity

to improve procurement, as numerous organizations have figured out, said

Chip Mather, senior vice president of Acquisition Solutions Inc., Chantilly,

Va.

The Air Force has made centralization work, selecting two companies

to offer laptop computers across the service. Not only does it drive down

costs, but "it is a great way to standardize," Mather said. "Now you have

a program manager and a company worrying to death how happy you are."

For the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet project — a multibillion-dollar program

that would tie together the department and outsource its IT infrastructure

to a single contractor — senior Navy officials are trying something similar.

They have pitched the program as the only way the service can simplify the

process of buying, managing and operating network services.

The Navy currently oversees 24 networks that are owned and operated

by different commands and priorities. N/MCI would create a single network

under which the Navy can enforce standards and streamline initiatives.

While it is certainly important to look inward for solutions, Steve

Cochran, vice president for technology at the Council for Excellence in

Government, warned that important components may not be easily fixed.

"Everything may be streamlined to the nth degree," he said. "Now we

have super-well-wired stovepipes. The question is, how do these agencies

provide seamless services, and is this going to enable it to occur?"

Standardization still must be done selectively, said Renny DiPentima,

president of SRA International Inc.'s government sector and the former commissioner

for systems at the Social Security Administration. "It is always difficult

for a large department to centralize their IT," Di-Pentima said. "If HHS

could, it would wind up being one of the world's largest systems."

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