Complete interview: Melissa Chapman

CIO marks tech successes, looks to what's next

Melissa Chapman became the chief information officer of the Department of Health and Human Services in June 2002. It's been quite a busy year. Beside revamping the agency's Web site and making strides in IT infrastructure and e-government, she hopes to introduce a proposed e-government imitative, called the Federal Health Architecture. She spoke with Washington Technology Managing Editor Evamarie Socha for the "Doing Business With" column of the June 23 issue. Here is the complete interview.

Q: The news release announcing your appointment stated that IT infrastructure and e-government would be your priorities. Is that still the case?

A: That is definitely still the case. We've made a lot of progress detailing those initiatives and priorities.

Q: You've revamped your Web site since you have been in office.

A: Yes. We've had tremendous feedback on the Web site. It's just been terrific. In particular with the Web site, we've done a great job, and now we have to do an even better job because the demand has increased so much for even more information. ?

Q: Who is the most feedback coming from?

A: A lot from the general public, a lot from the trade press, a lot from other departments in the government.

Q: What was the biggest challenge?

A: We thought it was very important to present our information by categories that would be familiar to anyone, rather than having to be intimate with the organizational structure. So we think that approach has done a lot of good. You practically had to work here to find the information before.

Q: Has it made life easier for people within the agency?

A: I think it has. I certainly use it, and in the past I never used the HHS Web site. I went straight to the different operating components. Certainly helps us, but I think it's even better for the public. In particular, it's kept very up to date with regard to announcements from Secretary [Tommy] Thompson as new health issues become public, such as SARS, monkeypox. The Web site is immediately updated with that kind of information.

Q: How much as been invested in the site?

A: That would be difficult to say. We're in the budget season and we have several contracts, I'd be a little hesitant to put a price tag on it. ? I can tell you, that given it's sort of a public-private partnership in the way that we've developed this Web contract before

Q: Are there other IT projects that will be getting more attention?

A: I mentioned that what we've done is take the prioritization of IT consolidation and e-government and plan that out into specific initiatives. Under IT consolidation, we have multiple internal efforts. The operative component we call them operating divisions, there's 13 ? everything from the office of the secretary to FDA, TMS, etc. ? there is a challenge to consolidate internally the way in which they manage and provide infrastructure services ? things like help desk, acquisition and deployment of desk ops, e-mail, troubleshooting the network, etc. So the larger outfits will consolidate internally those unified organizations.

The smaller ones will all be serviced by a new unified service center. So we will go from about 50 distinct infrastructure organizations down to six. It has been not just a tremendous technical change, but even more so a cultural change for our department. I think there has been a lot of concern and a lot of good questions from the operating component. I don't think they're resistant at all, I think they support what the secretary wants to accomplish. But it's their job, also, as a department to ask the important questions, because they are much closer to the mission, they're doing that work every single day and technology is definitely an important part of improving our productivity. When you think about the fact that technology allowed FDA to greatly reduce the amount of time it takes for review of a drug application, or that fact that at NIH, they have much wider access to clinical trial data through the technology, you realize it's not just an initiative, it's important to health care as well.

Q: Are your technology needs unique?

A: When it comes to infrastructure, again, the way we use PCs, the way we use network connectivity, I don't think that's unique, that's sort of technical utility that weaves across the department. But it may be unique in that we have a health mission that we have to often develop on our own certain kinds of software tools to manage the tremendous amount of health data that we have. I think we are unique in the way that private industry looks to us to often find certain trends, to provide a national view of kinds of data. So in that way, I think we have some unique software needs.

Q: What do you look for in the companies you're thinking of working with?

A: With the proliferation of technology, and, at least in my mind, the United States continuing to lead the way with technical solutions, technology is not the hard part. I like to see an IT contractor focus on insuring that whatever project they're working on for the government, they tie it to the business process and the mission. The IT is meant to better enable the business that we've been about long before technology came along. And I think across government, we often miss the mark and focus more on the technology than the business process we're trying to support. So I definitely look for contractors who either come on board with a lot of knowledge about how HHS does business, or prioritize for themselves gaining that knowledge in order to better support us.

Q: Where would you like to see HHS a year from now technology wise?

A: A year from now, I would very much like to see an organization that prioritizes IT projects according to the business initiative that they support. I'd like to see a lot more software development efforts that go across operating components. And I'd like to see that we're reaching out to some other departments as well. I'd like to see us talk to USDA more about the food safety business. I'd like to see us talk to VA more about electronic patient medical records. And it's not that those efforts haven't started, but they're not part of the mainstream.

I spoke a bit about how IT consolidation has evolved. I'd like to talk a bit about e-gov. HHS is a managing partner on two e-gov efforts, and hopes to be the managing partner on one that we're proposing. The two that we're already managing are CHI, which is Consolidated Health Informatics, and that workgroup is looking at health data standards that have already been established in doing a best-of-breed look by subject or health category, so we can choose from the best working ones out there. And then the other effort is eGrants, and this is the establishment of a unified interface to the outside world for the grants process that happens inside the government. Both of those projects are going very well.

But I am hoping to establish a third one, whose working title is Federal Health Architecture. And back to the issue of trying to unify the way in which we select and manage software development projects, I'd like to see us take the federal enterprise architecture approach and apply it across departments with common lines of business. We have an opportunity to pursue that with the President's Management Council, e-gov subcommittee at the end of June.

Q: How is the reception so far?

A: I've had an opportunity to speak with a few private forums and a few other government forums. I think the reception ranges from cautiously optimistic to very, very excited, so I think that's promising.

Q: Do you have a timeline in mind for seeing it happen?

A: That is something that as the scope of this project becomes better focused every day, I think ultimately if it's adopted either as an e-gov project or just as an HHS priority, we would hope to see a usable product, maybe not finished, but something that could be used for analysis on how to pursue with technology is six to 12 months

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