AGENCY PROFILE: Department of Commerce
IT Takes Lead Role in Commerce Strategy
- By Carole Shifrin
- Aug 23, 2001
A major restructuring at the Commerce Department has elevated the role information technology plays there, giving chief information officers at Commerce units a conduit to the agency's upper reaches.
The plan, largely drawn up by former Chief Information Officer Roger Baker and adopted this summer by Commerce Secretary Donald Evans, creates CIOs at each of the department's 18 agencies. These CIOs report directly to the head or deputy head of their operating units and are accountable to the Commerce CIO.
The Commerce CIO post also was elevated and now reports directly to the secretary rather than being part of an assistant secretary's office.
"This is an important part of making sure the IT directives and IT policies are followed," said Tom Pyke, the department's acting CIO.
The new CIOs will take direction through the IT chain as well as from their official bosses at the Commerce agencies, Pyke said. The Commerce CIO also will help the heads of these agencies, such as the Census Bureau, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and National Institute of Standards and Technology, to evaluate the performance of their CIOs.
The auxiliary reporting line "does not detract from the official chain of command but gives management of IT a special place in the department," Pyke said. The new structure also will help coordinate IT programs, making sure equipment and services the agencies acquire are interoperable.
The new organization is the right solution for Commerce, Pyke said, because of the agency's diverse programs and large units, each with their own missions.
The Commerce Department's charter is to promote job creation, economic growth, international trade and U.S. competitiveness through technological advancement, and it seeks to achieve these goals through a variety of activities. They include collecting and disseminating data, such as through the Census Bureau; providing weather forecasts and warnings of destructive natural events through NOAA; and protecting and encouraging innovation by issuing patents and trademarks, through the Patent and Trademark Office.
In fiscal 2000, these three agencies were responsible for almost 94 percent of the reported IT obligations of the department, according to the Federal Procurement Data Center and market research firm Input Inc.
Pyke said, however, that Census Bureau spending peaks in decennial years, when the census is conducted and raw data crunched. Last year, the department's IT budget, not counting the funding for the Patent and Trademark Office, swelled to $1.5 billion. The Census Bureau accounted for around $700 million. Although work has started on the 2010 census, the bureau's IT spending drops to $350 million in fiscal 2001.
The yearly Commerce IT budget is around $1 billion, Pyke said. Patent office spending is not included in the overall Commerce numbers; last year it became a performance-based organization and is funded through fees it collects from patent and trademark filers. The performance-based status gives patent office managers flexibility over their budgets, hiring and procurement.
The IT budget for the patent office will rise 48 percent from $239.2 million in fiscal 2001 to $353.5 million in fiscal 2006.
The patent office's activities are among the most IT-intensive at Commerce, both to support internal operations and interactions with the public. After a substantial but ongoing modernization of its information systems, the patent office last fall went online with a custom-designed software package that allows inventors to submit patent applications via the Internet.
The electronic patent application filing system, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., assembles application components, calculates fees, validates content and compresses, encrypts and transmits the filing to the patent office. The office receives more than 200,000 applications a year.
The patent office's Trademark Electronic Application System has been online since October 1998, and in June it marked its 100,000th Web-based trademark filing.
Anne Chasser, commissioner for trademarks, said about 25 percent of applications are filed through the system. Reducing paperwork is welcome at the office. Last year, it issued 182,223 patents and registered 127,794 trademarks.
Also, since November 2000, the patent office has put on its Web database more than 6.5 million patents, every one issued since 1790. To expand its offerings ? its database began with 2 million patents ? the agency added two Web database servers and doubled the available Internet bandwidth and the amount of disk storage to four terabytes.
"That's real e-government in action," Pyke said.
Lockheed Martin, Commerce's largest IT contractor with 19 percent of its business in fiscal 2000, had a key role in modernizing the patent office's information systems, including design, development and integration of client-server software for the online patent filing system.
The Bethesda, Md., company also was responsible for developing the Data Capture System 2000 used by the Census Bureau for processing an estimated 120 million census forms.
NOAA is another highly IT-intensive part of Commerce and the only unit with supercomputers. In September, it will put out a request for proposals for a next-generation supercomputer to replace the IBM SP in place at the National Weather Service. The procurement, valued at about $165 million over nine years, will seek delivery of a new system by August 2002.
"The National Weather Service is a real success story," Pyke said. "Over the last 20 years, it has managed to employ the latest technology to do a much better job in forecasting weather."
Predicting a hurricane's path has become much more accurate, he said, and will continue to improve, providing more accurate forecasts of a hurricane's intensity with new climate modeling capabilities.
To acquire supercomputers at the weather service and at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, NOAA's research facility in Princeton, N.J., NOAA seeks to give potential contractors "maximum flexibility to be creative," Pyke said, through performance-based contracting.
Rather than specify a system or an architecture to be acquired, NOAA outlines the functions and capabilities wanted and its goal, letting vendors come up with different ways and architectures to get the job done, he said.
Pyke knows a lot about NOAA. In addition to serving as acting Commerce CIO, he is CIO of NOAA; director of its High Performance Computing and Communications program, which he established in 1992; and director of the GLOBE Program, an international science and education program which he helped create.
All Commerce agencies are involved in disseminating data and information via the Internet and in increasing its use as much as possible to serve customers. Commerce agency sites, accessible through www.doc.gov
, are heavily used, Pyke said. The NOAA site ranks among the government's top five.
"The CIO's role is largely to help the department and our agencies take advantage of IT to carry out our mission better," Pyke said. "We're not just cheerleaders pushing technology at people. We want to use leading-edge technology, not bleeding edge, where we can do so at a lower cost."
Although 30 percent of Commerce's IT spending in fiscal 2000 went to Lockheed Martin and Electronic Data Systems Corp. of Plano, Texas, most of the department's contracts are dispersed among scores of contractors.
"We go out of our way to foster competition in acquisition," Pyke said. Commerce has been especially active in making sure small, disadvantaged and women-owned businesses get a share of IT work. Commerce estimates that IT expenditures under the Commerce Information Technology Solutions program, known as Commits, will reach $1.5 billion over five years.
A Commerce IT review panel examines potential new IT systems and acquisitions to make sure they are well-managed, standards are being stated and met, they adhere to the Commerce IT architecture, there's a good cost and benefit analysis in place, and IT security is being addressed.
Pyke chairs the review panel, which also includes the department's chief financial officer, budget director, procurement executive, large agency CIOs and selected small agency CIOs.
Commerce is in the middle of installing a new procurement management system, called the Commerce Standard Acquisition and Reporting System, which is designed to make internal operations more efficient and make it easier for contractors to do business there. CACI International Inc. of Arlington, Va., is the vendor on the five-year, $9.3-million program.
Despite all the progress, not everything has been rosy. Pyke said that some of the department efforts at agency IT modernization have not been easy, but they ultimately are successful.
One long-overdue effort seeks to build a common network infrastructure for all the operating units. A recent audit by the General Accounting Office found Commerce had 14 different data centers, diverse hardware platforms and software environments and 20 independently managed e-mail systems. Often, the units, which have developed and control their own networks, rely on the Internet to communicate with each other.
The audit also found serious problems with Commerce's IT security programs.
"At the seven Commerce organizations we reviewed, significant and pervasive computer security weaknesses exist that place sensitive Commerce systems at serious risk," Robert Dacey, GAO's director of information security issues, told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce's subcommittee on oversight and investigations Aug. 3.
GAO employees, using readily available software and common techniques, were able to penetrate sensitive Commerce systems both from inside the agency and through the Internet, with the potential to read, copy, modify and delete sensitive economic, financial, personnel and confidential business data, Dacey said. Moreover, their intrusion often went undetected.
GAO blamed a lack of an effective program to manage information security.
"We need a stronger Commercewide IT security program," Pyke said, "and we're in the process of creating it."
Although the benefits of electronic government are clear, the technology can be undermined for more mundane reasons. This month, during one of the periodic online discussions top Commerce officials have with the public, Trademarks Commissioner Chasser was asked why there appeared to be a long delay between question and reply.
The answer: "My typing skills aren't that great."