Nelson applies an enterprise view to EPA's systems strategy

Civilian Executive of the year: Kim Nelson

Rick Tteele

A single, apt metaphor could help explain the success of Kim Nelson, CIO of the Environmental Protection Agency and recipient of GCN's Civilian Executive of the Year award.

As the federal agency responsible for protecting ecosystems, Nelson says EPA has learned to think of itself as an ecosystem and to conduct IT strategy at an enterprise level. 'It's almost natural,' she says. 'We manage an ecosystem.'

That philosophy has, since Nelson came on board in November 2001, helped keep EPA at the forefront of the federal government's efforts to improve data sharing within and among agencies, simplify enterprise architectures and boost e-gov services to citizens.

EPA is the lead agency for E-Rulemaking, one of the Office of Management and Budget's 25 Quicksilver projects, which is expected to provide a centralized portal for citizen input into rulemaking by 2005.

Another major initiative will consolidate 46 records-management systems on a single platform, beginning with a pilot next year. By the end of this year, EPA plans to unveil the Central Data Exchange, the entry point for the agency's Environmental Information Exchange Network that will let states' environmental agencies and others submit and access data.

Nelson, who serves as co-chair of the CIO Council's Architecture and Infrastructure Committee, calls CDX, winner this year of a GCN agency award, one of her proudest achievements.

The project had its share of challenges. The vision for the network, first formulated five years ago, was to apply the then-ascendant e-commerce model to the federal government. But with the dot-com crash, private-sector development slowed on the registry needed to manage posting of data to the exchange.

'We had to do it all ourselves,' Nelson recalled, adding that poor interoperability among third-party Web services tools made the job harder. 'When you're on the leading edge, this is what happens.'

Now, 13 states already have nodes on the network and are employing Extensible Markup Language specifications supplied by EPA to post data. Despite the early problems, Nelson is extremely high on Web services' potential.

'It will happen,' she said. 'I think it has an incredible future.'

She cited the CDX air-quality portal, expected to go online for co-regulators by the end of this year, as a good example of effective integration of EPA's enterprise architecture.

Nelson seems comfortable in describing her role as that of manager, not technologist. She has a bachelor's degree in political science and secondary education from Pennsylvania's Shippensburg University, and a master's in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

She came to EPA from Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection, where she held several senior management positions, including CIO, in a 22-year career that spanned several state agencies.

'I think that what I was able to bring to EPA was, first and foremost, some credibility because I came from an organization that was very highly regarded,' she said.

Early adopter

The agency was on the leading edge of IT even then. 'We were the first state agency to fully integrate our data and put it on our Web site,' Nelson said, and she recalled working on early enterprise architectures as far back as the late 1980s.

She credits the similar mission of state environmental agencies, and her close working relationship back then with EPA, as good preparation for her federal career. 'State government is not that different from federal government,' she said.

It helped, also, that she was the first political appointee to oversee EPA's new Office of Environmental Information, which was created in the last year of the Clinton administration. 'I was the first one with the clout to make some real decisions,' she says.

Nelson says the job of a CIO is to focus on the managerial and informational needs of the agency. 'When it's too narrowly defined as just an IT responsibility, it's difficult or impossible to make the [kinds of] changes that were done here,' she said.

Thus, despite an armful of technically impressive projects, she is particularly proud of a less IT-intensive creation: the Draft Report on the Environment 2003, an assessment of what is and is not known about the health of the environment.

In three decades of existence, EPA hadn't ever managed to produce such a report. Nelson sees it as illustrating the true job of a CIO, which is mostly a challenge of organizing existing data, identifying needed data and taking steps to gather it. 'We find that we are unable to answer three-quarters of the questions the American public wants answers to,' Nelson admitted.

She is humble about taking credit for EPA's record of IT leadership, saying the groundwork had already been laid for most of the accomplishments.

'There was a wealth of foundation work that had been done,' Nelson said. 'I stand on some very tall shoulders. It was almost like being given the ball on the 2-yard line, and all I had to do was carry it to the end zone.'

David Essex is a free-lance writer in Antrim, N.H.

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