Who will take IT reins at new department?

Whoever ascends to the CIO post at the proposed Homeland Security Department faces an unprecedented technical challenge.

No federal restructuring this sweeping has occurred in a half-century'long before the information age or the concept of e-government. Previous reorganizations mostly dealt with people and missions and file cabinets, not terabytes of data and vast networks of high-tech equipment.

The CIO's charge will be to combine the disparate systems of 22 organizations, manage the culture challenge of sharing information and make sure the department integrates its systems with those outside the federal homeland security family, including state and local governments, analysts said.

The CIO could control a budget of about $2.1 billion in 2003, according to Input of Chantilly, Va. That would rank the department fourth in IT spending among civilian agencies.

'The challenge of creating this virtually seamless system that provides information collection and analysis is absolutely essential to homeland security,' said Patricia McGinnis, president and chief executive officer of the Council for Excellence in Government in Washington. 'This may be as important as creating the department itself. We are seeing that Sept. 11 was, in part, a massive failure of IT and communications.'

So who would be best qualified to take on the task? Some observers suggested Steve Cooper, who the president appointed CIO of the Homeland Security Office, is in the best position to move over to the top IT post at the planned department.

Top candidates

Others said there are qualified candidates in the agencies that would be combined, such as Ron Miller, the politically appointed CIO at the Federal Emergency Management Agency, and S.W. 'Woody' Hall, a career civil servant and CIO at the Customs Service. Still others said someone who has experience with large corporate mergers and knowledge of the federal government would be best.

Harris Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America in Arlington, Va., said Cooper would be a good choice because of his background. Before taking the post in homeland security director Tom Ridge's organization, Cooper was CIO at Corning Inc. of Corning, N.Y.'a job that followed a handful of senior management jobs in the IT industry.

'Steve is not the traditional government employee, so he brings experience in the private and government sectors,' he said. 'He has technical and management backgrounds and has shown the ability to think strategically.'

Alan Balutis, executive director for the Industry Advisory Council, said he expected the person likely would come from outside government.

'If you look at the CIO positions the administration has filled so far, most have come from the outside,' he said.

Whoever is chosen, the challenge of meshing systems, personnel and processes will be great.
'The biggest question is how not to make a fatter stovepipe,' said Helga Rippen, director of the Science and Technology Policy Institute at Rand in Arlington, Va. 'You have to think about how things interface not just internally but with all the stakeholders.'

Other concerns

Rippen said managing access to databases would be another chief concern.

Michael Scardaville, policy analyst for homeland security at the Heritage Foundation, a Washington public policy institute, said even though the integration will be difficult, it would improve the ability to share information and save the government money.

ITAA's Miller said the CIO would need a combination of resources and political muscle. 'The CIO needs the ear of the secretary and the confidence of the CIOs in the silos,' he said. 'These things would strengthen all their abilities to function more effectively and achieve the objectives.'

McGinnis, who helped create the Education Department in the late 1970s, said technology is the least of the CIO's problems.

'The CIO must be able to foster the kind of collaboration that is necessary for this to succeed. That is why this will be difficult to fill,' she said. McGinnis also cautioned that the administration shouldn't wait too long to decide on candidates for key positions.

'Information systems and using technology should be at or near the top of the list as a part of preimplementation planning,' she said. 'The CIO must be a partner who is at the heart of how the agency operates.'

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