Decision Support Systems Make Gains in Government

Decision Support Systems Make Gains in Government

By Jon William Toigo



Government policy initiatives, improved technology and growing user acceptance are fueling increased demand for decision support systems, with spending on such systems projected to double annually through 2003, according to a new study.

The study by the market research firm Federal Sources Inc., McLean, Va., found that services will account for the lion's share of that government spending.

In 1999, the federal government will spend about $383 million on services, software and hardware aimed at refining the output of information systems to support decision-making processes. That investment will swell to more than $6 billion by 2003.

Government users' acceptance of the concept of knowledge management and their familiarity with enabling technologies will result in explosive growth in the decision support systems market during the next several years, said Payton Smith, manager of strategic studies at Federal Sources.

For the study, "Knowledge Management in the Federal Government," technologies for decision support were put under the umbrella term of knowledge management, although others use the terms business intelligence or decision support, said Smith.

Regardless of how they are classified, he said, the growth trend is clear. Today desktop-based applications with graphical user interfaces can help government workers find useful trend information from their data without the need for special software training. Agency employees can use this information to manage business processes more cost effectively and to support planning efforts.

In the past, the technical complexity of decision support systems limited their adoption by federal agencies, Smith said. Most required specialized skills to use, he said. "That is part of the reason that the market has remained small until now."

But within the past few years, easier-to-use query and reporting, online analysis and processing and data mining applications have made decision support systems more accessible to the rank and file.

The crowded field of decision support tool vendors includes AlphaBlox Corp. of Mountain View, Calif.; Brio Technology Inc. of Palo Alto, Calif.; Business Objects of San Jose, Calif.; Hyperion Solutions Corp. of Sunnyvale, Calif.; Oracle Corp. of Redwood Shores, Calif.; and SAS Institute of Cary, N.C.

The rising popularity of decision support systems in the government started with the implementation of the Clinton administration's National Performance Review in 1993 and has spread from governmentwide legislation to agency-specific initiatives, Smith said.

The NPR initiative is designed to reform government work processes and create a government that "works better, costs less and gets results Americans care about." Vice President Al Gore is head of a task force that is examining the operations of agencies and departments, and recommending ways to improve service and reduce costs.

Software tools and hardware are comparatively inexpensive components in the investment in decision support systems, according to the Federal Sources study. The vast majority of budgeted dollars — nearly 85 percent in 1999 — are allocated to services. These services include hiring systems integrators to define the "processes for inventorying, capturing and retrieving information assets," the report states.

Most federal integrators are working to develop decision support system opportunities within the public sector. Early players include Intergraph Federal Systems, PricewaterhouseCoopers and Science Applications International Corp.

But the field is becoming more competitive as other service providers, such as Oracle Government Solutions of Herndon, Va., and Keane Federal Systems, make their way into this market.

Service providers will be the biggest winners in the decision support system boom, Smith said, noting the need to integrate online systems as a prerequisite for decision support.

By contrast, most hardware platforms used for decision support systems consist of servers already in place, while the software increasingly is available off the shelf, keeping down prices for both categories.

Susan Case, senior vice president of Keane Inc.'s Federal Systems Division of Rockville, Md., sees enormous opportunities for integrators. Agencies have a "growing need to slice and dice data to deliver improved service to the citizen," she said. Decision support systems have become "the hot topic at government technology conferences," Case said, noting several high profile projects now under way at some agencies are cultivating the increased interest.

Keane officials hope to leverage the company's commercial decision support systems at Traveler's Insurance of Hartford, Conn., US West of Denver, and Fleet Bank of Boston to gain a presence in a federal market that "no one corners currently," she said.

Keane is working on a data warehouse/decision support solution for the District of Columbia under a contract awarded late last year, although Case declined to give the contract value.

The Defense Department may provide a wealth of opportunity for integrators with decision support expertise, Smith said. That is because decision support systems have particular relevance to command and control in military applications, as well as other agencies with complex logistics, he said.

Indeed, defense agencies have called upon Intergraph Corp., Huntsville, Ala., to assist with numerous projects, including decision support systems, using a general purpose contract awarded to the company in 1991, said Jim Slate, vice president of Intergraph's Government Solutions Division.

"Whenever you develop a decision support solution for DoD, you confront several hurdles," Slate said. "First of all, many legacy systems are stovepipe systems, not well-integrated at all. You need to decide whether to replace the systems or to find some way to integrate them" to gather their data together for analysis and decision support.

In most cases, the Defense Department does not want to replace legacy platforms because of the investment it has made in them, he said. That means the integrator has to build its decision support system to link the legacy systems, Slate said.

One project Intergraph has supported through various phases over the past four years is the Cost and Production Performance Module system for Air Logistics Centers at Robins Air Force Base in Georgia, Tinker Air Force Base in Oklahoma City, and Hill Air Force Base in Ogden, Utah.

The Air Logistics Centers have engaged Intergraph through a series of General Services Administration task orders valued at about $6 million to date, to aid them in developing and refining a decision support system that facilitates maintenance work on aircraft systems and components.

Joyce Mock, who serves as the program director for the air logistics decision support system at Robins Air Force Base, said the current version of the system provides about 250 users at each center with timely financial and production performance information.

"[The system] provides a Windows-based, point-and-click interface that lets everyone — from shop floor personnel to branch, sector and division chiefs — see how they are performing against budget and productivity targets set for them by command," Mock said.

Target statuses are color-coded in green, yellow and red to allow users to see variances and to take appropriate action to resolve cost and schedule problems.

Intergraph was brought in to establish a centralized database of logistical and budgetary data and has steadily refined the system for use in a Microsoft Windows 95/NT client-server configuration.

Maj. David Petitt, project officer for the Total Force Data Warehouse within the Marine Corps Systems Command at Quantico, Va., hopes to leverage his decision support system to facilitate manpower planning for the Marines.

After several failed attempts by contractors to deliver a data warehouse that could be used to discern trends in Marine Corps manpower data, the command selected Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego in July 1998 to deliver the project, he said.

Petitt attributed past failures to limitations of technology and difficulties introduced by overly complex approaches adopted by the integrators. SAIC's approach was based in part on advancements in fundamental computing technologies, said Kevin Ikeda, SAIC's program manager.

SAIC needed to take data from three sources and 24 different data formats and consolidate them into a data warehouse, Ikeda said. The secret to success was to base the warehouse design on the data, rather than contorting the data to fit a warehouse design.

In January, SAIC delivered the first increment of the project, a data warehouse containing 10 years of active-duty personnel and transaction information. SAIC built the system for the Marine Corps for about $800,000 through GSA contracts.

In February, SAIC received a secondary contract of $1 million to increase the size of the data warehouse's storage component and to provide other services, including integrating economic indicators and related information from third-party systems into the data warehouse, Petitt said.

"Our original purpose was to establish a data warehouse that could be used to respond to questions from Congress or other sources, such as how many aviators were majors in 1991," Petitt said. "We also wanted to use the warehouse to assist manpower planning by answering questions such as how many personnel with rank X are leaving the service annually. The historical data for doing these things existed, of course, but you had to access different systems and different data formats."

Before the new data warehouse was installed, the Marine Corps would have to write a software program using a language such as SAS, or hire a programmer to do it, he said.

With a data warehouse and a combination of query and reporting tools, online analysis and processing and data mining tools, the potential existed to enable nontechnical analysts to perform the tasks.

Petitt said he is reviewing several products from Cognos Inc. of Burlington, Mass., including Scenario, PowerPlay, 4Thought and Impromptu, and that SAIC was surveying other off-the-shelf tools for the Marine Corps system.

Before the end of the year, Petitt said, "we will be able to use additional data, such as economic indicators, to assist in projecting manpower losses."

Also, "we will be able to correlate commercial sector salaries and other economic factors with the numbers of personnel leaving the Marine Corps. That will be a great support to [decision-makers] who currently use straight-line trend data to project personnel losses," he said.

The Marine Corps data warehouse supports about 20 people. Petitt did not expect the user base to grow substantially, even when 10 years of data pertaining to the Marine Corps reserve component are added to the warehouse by SAIC in its second increment deliverable in late 1999. He does, however, hope that the warehouse will prove itself to be more useful as a decision support mechanism for Marine manpower planners over time.

Matthew Fleming, systems accountant with the Military Sealift Command at the Navy Yard in Washington, said the primary purpose of the command's Financial Data Mart is decision support.

Developed with the help of PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP, the Financial Data Mart assists the command in realizing its primary mission — to provide ocean transportation of equipment, fuel, supplies and ammunition to sustain U.S. forces worldwide.

The command uses Cognos' PowerPlay product to build data sets from which it can extract useful information regarding a range of issues.

"We can identify overspending or underspending, then drill down to a specific transaction that caused the problem," Fleming said. "It was difficult to do this in the past using legacy system data alone."

The new system has freed up time for military analysts to do other decision support related work, Fleming said. "For example, based on analyses, we may be able to better determine appropriate rates for renting space on cargo vessels, or determine other revenue raising opportunities," he said.

Fleming would not reveal the dollar value of the contract with PricewaterhouseCoopers. However, he said his agency has used GSA schedules to engage consultants and to purchase off-the-shelf software products, such as the Cognos data mining and online analysis and processing tools.

"We have had to implement our data mart in phases, helping our 70 to 75 users visualize the process each step of the way. We let them see what is built before defining the next step and let them tell us what they need," Fleming said. His advice is to move slowly and to keep customers happy with what is delivered at each phase.

Decision support applications are maturing and becoming broad enough to appeal to a larger market, Federal Sources' Smith said.

"There are a huge variety of things you can do with this technology, but products need to mature and users need to become more familiar and comfortable with the tools before you can go from number crunching to actual management using the information derived from knowledge management products," he said.

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