In response to agency's woes, W. Hord Tipton makes security issues a top priority.
The Interior Department's chief information officer was beginning to wonder if he had become the guy in charge of killing projects. Every job that W. Hord Tipton has had, he said, seemed to come with an ailing system and a plug in need of pulling.
In 1999, as a state director, he was given the task of putting to rest the Bureau of Land Management's waning Automated Land and Mineral Records System. But his work on the other part of the assignment — to rebuild it — caught many people's attention and helped him climb to the post of chief information officer two and a half years later.
Tipton, a qualified firefighter, karate black belt and certified land surveyor, has the calm of a seasoned sheriff. Indeed, he was once a law enforcement official. But Tipton's expertise reflects a work ethic that is simple yet arduous: Practice what you preach.
In March, months before taking the job as Interior's CIO, Tipton, 60, did something unusual for a federal agency CIO: He became a Certified Information Systems Security Professional.
The certification matches the job at hand. Security is at the forefront at Interior, an agency that has been beleaguered by hackers and system vulnerabilities. The problems resulted in a court-ordered shutdown of Internet access to parts of Interior's eight bureaus.
Since Tipton took the helm, Interior officials have spent about $100 million on systems and network security. Two years earlier, the agency was spending about
$4 million per year. By emphasizing business systems security, he said, the level of security is many times stronger than it was before.
Tipton, a father of two, is an engineer among lawyers: His wife, daughter and son-in-law are attorneys. Tipton's wife, Nina Hatfield, is a descendant of the family involved in the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud.
Born in Kentucky, Tipton speaks with an unmistakable Southern twang. The folksiness of his speech is a product of his upbringing.
With a 13-year private-sector career in Tennessee, Tipton has a keen understanding of information technology and the expansive nature of Interior's mission.
The department, the fourth federal agency created, was started in 1849, a number that matches its address on C Street in Washington, D.C. It has 53 business operations, eight bureaus, 77,000 employees and 2,500 offices scattered from the Insular Islands to the remote reaches of Alaska.
"Nothing we do is untouched by the flow of electrons," he said.
The individual bureaus receive direct appropriations from Congress rather than funds from Interior's central budget. The arrangement is good, Tipton said, because it requires a discussion by business people and IT staff. Business drives IT, not the other way around, he said.
Most Interior employees have a mix of business and IT skills, so they can devise their own ideas without relying on the agency's IT shop.
Certified project managers have become a mandatory component of initiatives under Tipton's lead. But he said the agency has a way to go, especially with regard to finding project managers with enough experience to lead major cross-agency projects.
Randy Feuerstein, the Bureau of Reclamation's CIO, said Tipton is dedicated, persistent and persuasive. "Hord does his best to keep us all moving in the right direction and has accomplished a great deal in a very short period of time," Feuerstein wrote in an e-mail.
Interior officials, like those at many agencies, are abuzz with the notions of enterprise. The question to ask, Tipton said, is, "Why do we need more systems or support or help desks?"
Taking law enforcement as an example, he said, "we 'architect' what we want it to look like from a law enforcement [perspective] with the departmental owner of that program. They lead that effort from a business side, and we complement it from an IT side, and it comes together."
Tipton said employees in his office are working on a business case this year for a consolidated law enforcement system for all of Interior. His goal is "shutting down four systems for the benefits of operating one."
Agency officials are trying to consolidate 13 independent networks with different service providers to a single one with a backup system. One of the 13 is the Enterprise Services Network, which "comes under the overarching view of an enterprise, [including] approach, standardization, economies of scale and service deliveries," Tipton said.
The common strand running through all the networks is security. The agency has been dogged by Government Accountability Office reports, congressional criticism and legal battles involving the Indian Trust. Agency officials argue that the legal accusations greatly discount Interior officials' ability to protect data.
In addition to his security professional certification, Tipton also is certified as an Information Systems Security Engineering Professional. Therefore, he isn't likely to be swayed by employees who want to automate a program if it isn't necessary. He can discern whether something is crucial or simply nice to have.
IT employees must answer important questions about business practices before a program is automated. Tipton demands vigorous analysis to build a strong case. "We are not going to automate the cow path," he said.
Chourey is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, Calif.
NEXT STORY: VA drives open-source health records initiative