Ridge's challenge

Thomas R. Temin

The Bush administration has characteristically gagged Homeland Security Department officials except for secretary Tom Ridge'and I'll bet he clears every syllable with the White House.

Still, from HSD-bound people's discussions over the last several months, you can glean a reasonably clear picture of how the department will approach IT.

If the Transportation Security Administration is a model, expect the department to go the managed-services route for its core backbone and LAN infrastructure. But the department's broader strategy is likely to resemble that taken by the Navy with its Navy-Marine Corps Intranet project.

To be sure, NMCI has been problem-plagued, but in theory it's a good model. Like the Navy, HSD is a conglomeration of hundreds of legacy LANs, systems and applications that must behave coherently at a reasonable cost. In Homeland Security's case, if outsourcing helps override the inevitable turf wars among the 22 component agencies, an NMCI-like route would be smart.

More important is who will make IT buying decisions. The administration has done two things that affect career federal professionals. First, it has put them beneath more layers of political appointees than the Clinton administration did. Second, it has made them far more circumspect than in earlier years about what they say publicly.

So it seems likely that procurement decisions will be made by politicals, and that's not healthy. Lobbying'whether actual or perceived'can influence buying decisions, which are supposed to be governed by law and regulation. IT efforts at Homeland Security will be highly visible and accompanied by enough second-guessing from the start.

In the long run, too much political involvement in nonpolicy areas that traditionally have been the purview of civil servants will weaken career managers' sense of mission and ownership in the department.

Ridge's team must work hard to achieve balance in this unprecedented undertaking: making sound policy while ensuring continuity and high morale among those who will be there when the next round of leaders arrives.

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