DHS infrastructure moves forward amid challenges

The Homeland Security Department is slowly making headway toward building a common information technology infrastructure, but culture clashes and tight budgets remain obstacles to creating a unified technology platform.

A year after the government pulled together 22 different federal agencies under the aegis of the Homeland Security Department in March 2003, IT directors are now zeroing in on eight priorities for 2004, including information sharing, information security improvement, creating one technology infrastructure, mission rationalization, enterprise architecture, portfolio management, governance and IT human resources, agency officials said.

These goals are at the core of the department's plan to make dissimilar existing systems compatible to assist in the fight against terrorism.

"There are structures yet to be built and fully implemented," said Scott Hastings, chief information officer for the U.S. Visit Program Management Office at Homeland Security. "Moving ahead, we'll have a real advantage of having those platforms to work off of."

Hastings was a member of a panel of DHS chief information officers, who spoke yesterday at a members-only forum sponsored by the Association for Federal Information Resources Management, known as Affirm. It is a nonprofit group that promotes the improvement of the management of information and resources.

In the meantime, two immediate obstacles stand in Homeland Security's way of achieving its IT objectives: institutional clashes among the agencies comprising the department, and limited budget resources.

"You can have all the technology you need, and culture can stop you dead in your tracks," said moderator George Bollinger III, senior vice president of federal government solutions at systems integrator EDS Corp. of Plano, Texas.

As an example, he noted the separate cultures of the U.S. Customs agency and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, where each is used to different financial, human resources and back-office processing systems. The two divisions have been pulled together under the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency of the Homeland Security Department, and eventually will have to use a common IT platform.

Limited funding is another roadblock.

"None of us ever has the money we want," said Gary Hartwig, the interim chief information officer of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Another setback is that some new Homeland Security agencies, such as the Transportation Security Administration, must build their IT and communications networks from scratch. So far, the agency has rolled out basic communications services, such as landline installations and cellular phones, in 200 of its 600 offices nationwide, said Joe Peters, the agency's deputy chief information officer.

Likewise, Immigration and Customs Enforcement has had problems with pulling its IT together even with basic technology, such as a common e-mail system, Hartwig said.

The panelists said that two solutions were for Homeland Security to combine the best IT set-ups from each agency and to form partnerships with systems integrators.

"The challenge of partnering is giving us a way to do business better, cheaper, faster," Hartwig told the audience of about 125 Affirm members, around 90 percent of whom were from IT companies.

Some attendees, nevertheless, gave high marks to Homeland Security for its IT achievements thus far.

Spain Hall Jr., corporate vice president for homeland security at IT company Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, said that no government body has been able to complete its IT architecture in a year. But Homeland Security "has been able to keep their operations going, and I don't think they're behind the power curve," he said.

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