Management must be improved if DHS is to use IT more effectively, experts say.
Management responsibilities within the Homeland Security Department must be improved if information technology is to be used more effectively, two experts told Federal Computer Week.
Last week at a House hearing, James Loy, the department's deputy secretary, said moving the Management Directorate under his office would aid efforts to integrate legacy systems and other components of the 22 agencies that make up DHS. Lawmakers on the Select Committee on Homeland Security are considering the move as well.
The department has five directorates that are managed by undersecretaries. The other four are Border and Transportation Security, Emergency Preparedness and Response, Science and Technology, and Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection.
"It's past time for that to be a good idea," said Donald Kettl, a political science professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. "The real problem is that there desperately needs to be somebody somewhere who's in charge of the overall management of the Department of Homeland Security."
Secretary Tom Ridge is too busy with politics, policy and public relations to manage DHS, and the Management Directorate doesn't have enough leverage, he said. Although management has always been a troublesome issue in the federal government, he said, it has worked best within the offices of deputy secretaries.
James Carafano, a senior research fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said when the Defense Department was formed in the 1940s, officials put the three services together with a secretary who had little staff and little power. "The undersecretaries were basically independent fiefdoms," he said. "That's somewhat of the problem you have now is that the secretariat level is very thin."
Carafano said it doesn't mean officials aren't cooperating, but DHS would be more effective and efficient if the deputy secretary's office had more influence.
Both experts, who spoke to Federal Computer Week after last week's House hearing and have previously written about the DHS reorganization, said that good management is crucial to better utilize information technology. Kettl said DHS' mission is to connect the dots in preventing terrorism and that IT helps.
"The problem is we have a lot of legacy systems, we have a lack of coordination, we still have difficulty matching the systems up, and then there's not just the problem of making [DHS] work, but connecting [DHS] to the FBI and the CIA," he said. "And all these problems revolve around information technology. It's crucial, and the only way to solve these problems is to try to solve them with far stronger information technology systems, which requires stronger management."
Not only does the chief information officer need more staff, but Carafano said he's concerned that CIO Steve Cooper has "become more of an adviser than an integrator."
Carafano and Kettl also said the problem DHS is having is predictable. But if the problem is going to continue, it's likely to "cripple the department in the long haul," Kettl said.
"And left to its own devices, all the individual pieces are going to continue to fly in, at most, independent orbits and they're not likely to connect up very well," he said. "So it's absolutely crucial if we're interested in trying to improve homeland security to strengthen these elements in the department, and that's going to require stronger management because it's not going to happen on its own."
Carafano said last week's hearing also underscored the need for permanent committees in the House and Senate to provide focused rather than fragmented oversight of DHS. There is a movement under way to make the House committee permanent, but he said he doesn't see the same progress on the Senate side.
"If you went to 14 specialists and one guy just looked at your foot and one guy just looked at your eye and one guy just looked at your nose, you know you'd get expert care in each one of those areas on your way to the morgue," Carafano said. "The reason you go to a family physician is you look at everything in one integrated way — OK, this is how all of this is working together. Nobody's doing that in the Senate in a serious way."