Doing Business With Federal Election Commission
General Info on the FEC<@VM>The CIO file: Alec Palmer
- By Evamarie C. Socha
- Jan 12, 2004
Federal Election Commission
999 E St. NW
Washington, DC 20463
Bradley Smith, Chairman; Ellen Weintraub, Vice Chair; David Mason, Danny McDonald, Scott Thomas and Michael TonerEmployees:
525What it does:
The Federal Election Commission was created by Congress to administer and enforce the Federal Election Campaign Act, which governs federal election financing. It is an independent, regulatory agency that discloses campaign finance information to the public, enforces the law and issues penalties for violations, and oversees public funding of presidential elections. Major pieces:
The General Counsel's Office has four divisions: policy, enforcement, litigation and the Public Financing, Ethics and Special Projects (PFESP) division.
There is a staff director who, with commission approval, appoints staff and implements agency policy. The staff director also oversees the agency's public disclosure activities, audit program, outreach efforts and review of reports.
There are two deputy staff directors: one handles budget, administration and computer systems, and the other oversees audit and review.
Henrik G. de Gyor
Chief technology officerTook the job:
Sept. 29, 2003 Hometown:
Sudbury, Ontario, CanadaHome now:
Wife, three sons Hobbies:
Golf, hockey, photography and rebuilding classic muscle cars of the 1960s and 1970sCurrently reading:
"Elizabeth I, CEO: Strategic Lessons from the Leader Who Built an Empire," by Alan Axelrod Alma mater:
Brigham Young UniversityWT: You came to the FEC from the private sector. Is leading technology for a government agency different?
Palmer: It's different, but it's the same. In the private sector, companies use technology to leverage their return on investment. Whether you're selling a product or providing a service, you use technology to provide a better service or make a better product. Consequently, the technology is kind of in two phases: internal systems you need to run the business, such as financial systems, backup systems, human resources, etc. Then you have customer-facing applications that help drive the business.
The government is somewhat the same in that we also have internal systems. We have our accounting, budgetary systems, purchasing ? things of that nature, so you need the same tools to run an effective organization. As with the private sector I want to ensure that the investment we make in technology adds value to our customers, the public.WT: How has technology helped the FEC?
Palmer: Our agency has a threefold mission. It's responsible for the enforcement of campaign finance laws. [It discloses] information. We have a responsibility to put the information out there when we find out who has donated what and how much to whom. We also publish our enforcement actions ? any fines that are levied against any political action committees or individuals that have not followed the rules ? that is part of our responsibility to make it public. The third part is the presidential public funding programs. The candidates have started now to submit their requests for primary matching funds, and it's our responsibility to keep track of that. So when you look at technology, we want to leverage it to expedite that process.
A good example is electronic filing. A lot of the committees submit their information to us electronically. We take that information and put it in our database. We have an online search tool that helps you find who gave what to which candidates.
When I arrived here, one of our major projects that we had to launch by December was a query system that [provides] information for closed enforcement actions, those in which final decisions had been made. It's a totally Web-based product. We launched that Dec. 11. We've been getting a lot of good feedback on it, and we're looking at expanding it. We use that as a stepping stone to add other pieces of disclosure information on campaign finance, things of that nature.
We're also in the process of enhancing our Web page. We want it to be a much more robust tool. We also want it to be a portal to allow [people], whether it's John Q. Citizen, a candidate, the press or committees, to go there and find information that is publicly available. So we're trying to make it easier for people to get to that information.
One thing we'd like to do by the end of the first quarter of 2004 is have some enhancements on our Web page. For instance, we'd like a map of the United States that you click on, and it pops up your senators, your representatives of Congress, then take it to the next level and find more information about them. We have those things on the drawing board right now. WT: How has technology changed what your agency does or how it does it?
Palmer: [For example, our] public disclosure department. Years ago, people would come in there and rummage through all the files that have been submitted ? quite a bit of effort. Now we've automated that process. The public records department educates people on how to use the Internet tools we have out there, so they can get the same information on the Internet with search engine technology, things of that nature, so they can get that information in a matter of minutes instead of hours. We feel that is a critical service the agency is providing the public. WT: How is the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002 (also knows an McCain-Feingold) playing into what you do?
Palmer: My understanding is the Supreme Court decision that just came down pretty much upheld the law we were enforcing. Basically, that means ? selfishly, from my standpoint ? we don't have to make too many changes to our system. Just last year, we launched this new application which is [also] called Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, and that basically goes in line with the McCain-Feingold legislation. ? The real experts on that would be in the office of general counsel; they would then educate us in IT if there are any changes we need to make to the system.WT: That sounds like an office you work with closely.
Palmer: We work with pretty much every office here. We work closely with general counsel because we have some big systems that drive everything else. We work closely with the staff director, who is responsible for overall management decisions. He has a great vision of how technology can help this agency, as do the six commissioners. That is one of the things that excites me about this job; we have the support of senior staff and commissioners to be able to really move ahead and put new technology into place. WT: How was the agency technologywise when you arrived?
Palmer: There were some excellent systems that were being put in place, but we do have our work cut out for us. We have a lot of legacy applications that need to make the transition to new technology to provide a greater facilitation, making sure the information we need to disclose is available in a timely manner. I give credit to those people, who had done a good job, and they'll still have a lot of work ahead. WT: Is there added pressure with 2004 being an election year?
Palmer: There is on one front, the presidential matching funds, to make sure our systems run smoothly, etc., One thing I've decided ? we're going to continue to use the existing presidential matching funds software, which is a very old legacy system, because it's too late now to come on board and make those transitions with 2004 upon us. We're going to wait until after the election to make improvements on that.
Another pressure we'll face is we need to make sure to turn around the electronic filing information instantly and within a 48-hour window, make available value-added information on our Web site. I think there will be pressure for consistency, on our part, in turning around the information as quickly as possible. WT: What is the biggest technology issue on your mind these days?
Palmer: No. 1 is a whole legacy offload onto new technology platforms. Tied in with that: I want to make sure that gets mapped into an overall agency enterprise architecture. ? When we look at designing an enterprise architecture, we want to make sure we have a good foundation and the right technology is built from an applications and infrastructure standpoint, ensure that data can be accessed and the systems are robust and scalable, so that we can build on it and continue to use it in a very efficient manner. So we're moving ahead down that path, and in fact I have advertised for an enterprise architect, and will start interviewing for that position the first week in January.
Second, we need communication and coordination to make sure that all of my staff knows what's going on. Then my role is also to be able to work with the FEC leadership to make sure I understand their mission and vision, that I put the right things in place that are going to support their goals. WT: What do you look for in companies with which you are thinking of doing business?
Palmer: I think a couple of the most critical things: Do they have expertise in the specific technology we [want to bring] on board? Do they have a good track record with that technology? Do they expertise in-house? Can they provide good references? Are they good at project management ? some of them may be a technical expert, but can they deliver the project?
Also critical to me: Do they have a good internal quality assurance process? I want to make sure that the application has gone through a robust quality assurance test to make sure it's going to be reliable. I also look for contractors who are going to be flexible. I look at it as a partnership, as a win-win scenario, and I like partners that are not rigid, but flexible to be able to work with us, especially if there are changes. WT: If a company is interested in working with you, how would they get started?
Palmer: Since so many phone calls come in, I don't like to get the sales pitch over the phone. I encourage them to send me an e-mail, and in a couple of paragraphs explain to me how they think they can add value to the Federal Election Commission, and provide me some links to some of their Web sites, so that allows me to review the information. I like to have them take the initiative. WT: Because there is so much on your plate in 2004, where do you see the FEC's technology capabilities six months from now, and a year from now?
Palmer: There are things that we have to do internally, things that are not very sexy but are critical. We are doing a Lotus Notes upgrade and a PeopleSoft upgrade. These internal projects are taking up some time.
On the other side, or customer facing applications, I want to have tools on our Web site that are going to facilitate a process for the public, press, etc. to get to more information. Part of our game plan is our new Enforcement Query System.
By the end of the year, we hope to have all the information that is scanned and digitized backed to 2000. We are automating a lot of our digitized images and putting them online.
We have a new project right now for the Reports and Analysis Division. They analyze all the electronic filing requests that come in, so that is a very large project. We are looking at better tools for this division to enable them to provide a faster turnaround. Part of the process is we also have a responsibility to get back to the candidates and committees as soon as possible if there are any questions or ambiguities related to the application. You want to be very responsive. Right now it's difficult, because our systems are old. So we want to provide better systems so that the people here in the agency have better tools. Overall, just providing a more robust and stable environment.