State Dept. Sets Info-Sharing Pace

State Dept. Sets Info-Sharing Pace

Dean Thorsell: SAIC likes the State Department's focus on knowledge management and collaboration.

Accenture's Meg McLaughlin: The project will require big changes in how agency employees work and think.

IBM's Bruce Caswell: The project's challenges include building an architecture flexible enough to adapt across nations.

A State Department project to streamline information sharing among federal agencies in overseas embassies and consulates is being touted as a model for improving interagency collaboration here in the United States as well.

The project, which could be worth up to $400 million, has gained extra momentum since the Sept. 11 attacks, as the government has stepped up efforts to share data among different agencies. The program has caught the attention of Tom Ridge, director of Homeland Security, who is looking at it as a possible model for the government, said Fernando Burbano, the chief information officer for the State Department.

The Overseas Presence Interagency Collaboration System, called OPICS, will link 40 U.S. agencies that have offices in about 280 embassies and consulates around the world. The project was prompted by the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tazania, which revealed that agency offices, even within the same building, had difficulty communicating through e-mail, much less sharing data.

In June, the State Department selected Accenture Ltd. of Hamilton, Bermuda, Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, and SRA International Inc. of Fairfax, Va., to develop system prototypes. In February 2002, the State Department will pick one to run a pilot for 2,500 users in Mexico City and New Delhi, India, as well as in some Washington offices. Congress has authorized spending $17 million to take OPICS through the pilot program.

If successful, the system will then be rolled out worldwide to 40,000 to 50,000 users. The original plan called for the rollout to begin in fiscal 2004, but the level of interest from lawmakers is higher now and could speed up the timetable, government and industry officials said.

"Because of the events of Sept. 11, there's a lot of political pressure to get something fielded in the near term," said Anthony Muse, the department's deputy chief information officer responsible for the project.

In the beginning, the system was seen as "a nice-to-have, but after the events of Sept. 11, it became a need-to-have," he said. "What started this effort was a terrorist act, and two years later we now have another terrorist attack adding [momentum]."

It also is now a high-profile, high-risk program. Muse said there are both high expectations and great skepticism over the department's ability to pull it off.

"It is all-encompassing, with all the bells and whistles, the best of all possible worlds," he said.

The system will provide applications and a network backbone that will be used by all embassies and most consulates. It will have three primary functional areas: policy formulation, crisis coordination and administrative and human resources.

Policy formulation will allow agencies to coordinate programs and policies, such as the HIV-AIDS program, in which several agencies play a role. Crisis coordination will allow the agencies to share information, such as the location of American citizens in a particular country, during a time of crisis.

The administrative function, for example, will handle issues involving checking in new employees, whether they are from the State Department or other federal agencies.

The three prime contractors selected in June were awarded task orders of only $110,000 to develop system prototypes ? hardly enough to pay for the required resources.

But the companies expect a possible payoff not just from the State Department, but from other agencies interested in building similar systems.

"What attracted us most was how they were really focusing on knowledge management and collaboration, and that's an area where there's still a lot of opportunities," said Dean Thorsell, vice president in SAIC's strategies group. "By coming up with a solution for the State Department, you end up coming up with a solution for problems that many agencies have."

Each of the companies has put together a team of subcontractors, but company officials declined to reveal more than one or two teammates to avoid tipping their hands to competitors.

Accenture's team includes General Dynamics Corp., Falls Church, Va., and Booz-Allen & Hamilton Inc., McLean, Va.

The SRA team includes IBM Corp. of Armonk, N.Y., which is doing the development work itself. IBM wanted to pursue this contract as a prime, but the State Department wanted to use the National Institutes of Health's governmentwide contract vehicle, Chief Information Officer Solutions and Partners II, said Bruce Caswell, director of client solutions and the program executive for IBM. IBM could not lead the team because it is not a prime contractor on CIO-SP2, but SRA is.

SAIC's team includes PricewaterhouseCoopers, New York.

The price tag for OPICS is not set. The November 1999 report by the Overseas Presence Advisory Panel estimated it would cost $200 million for a network linking all overseas missions through the Internet and providing employees with e-mail and other capabilities. A unified classified system could run an additional $130 million.

Thorsell said the cost of worldwide system would reach $400 million.

"The main reason you get such a wide variety of numbers is what's being included," he said. "Sometimes they throw in the State Department's effort just to update Internet [access]."

Technical challenges include building an architecture and applications flexible enough to adapt across nations with widely varying degrees of infrastructure, Caswell said.

A bigger challenge may be changing the way agency employees work and think. They will need motivation to put information on the new systems, and then share it and use it, said Meg McLaughlin, Accenture's client partner for the State Department.

"It's a whole lot of effort to make sure the people know how to use it [and] change the way they work," she said. "That's why this thing has to be easy to use."

Among the benefits of moving to the system, McLaughlin said, is that agencies are concerned about the human capital crisis facing the government. The General Accounting Office has estimated that more than half of the work force will be eligible to retire over the next five years.

The State Department and its fellow overseas presence agencies see OPICS as one way to capture departing employees' knowledge and expertise.

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