From Vietnam to 9/11, Hitch delved into 'key issues of our time'
- By Richard W. Walker
- Oct 17, 2011
When Van Hitch graduated from college in 1967 with a bachelor’s degree in physics, he expected to go on to graduate school, earn a doctorate and eventually become a professor. But the war in Vietnam changed that plan. Instead, he decided to apply to the Navy Officer Candidate School. He was selected and entered the Navy in 1969.
Hitch’s decision to join the Navy proved to be pivotal. It put him on the road to a long career in IT, reaching a pinnacle at the Justice Department, where he served for nine years as one of the government’s most influential CIOs.
It was as a member of the Navy’s Operational Test andEvaluation Force that Hitch would discover the potential of computer technology. The organization used the rudimentary, room-sized computers and punched-card data entry systems of the time to analyze the results of operational tests on equipment the Navy purchased under large contracts.
“That was my first real introduction to the power of computers and their potential,” Hitch said. “I knew what was involved in analyzing this stuff manually, and I could see that it was just an impossible task without the computer. It stoked my interest.”
Hitch left the Navy in 1973 and joined Andersen Consulting, which later became Accenture and evolved into a management consulting and technology services company and a government contractor. After 28 years at Accenture, where he started as a computer programmer and rose to senior partner, Hitch moved over to the government side, joining the Justice Department as CIO in 2002.
Arriving at Justice a few months after the 2001 terrorist attacks, Spires found the position became more than just a job. “I always thought that law enforcement was a noble cause, but 9/11 brought that front and center,” Hitch said. “It was a tragic time for everybody. I wanted to do my part.”
At Justice, Hitch immediately faced an epic IT challenge, one that was given even more urgency by 9/11: Creating an environment in which the department’s agencies could share information with each other, with other federal agencies, and with state and local organizations.
“It was crystal clear that law enforcement agencies needed the tools to help them share information,” he said. “Everything was stove-piped. We had to have some sort of data-sharing standards.”
Under Hitch’s leadership, the CIO team created the Law Enforcement Information Sharing Program and coined the term “One DOJ” to represent a new paradigm for data sharing by the department.
Initially focusing on the Office of Justice Programs, the team expanded the use of the Global Justice XML Data Model to provide a framework for the exchange of information within Justice and with public safety communities. The initiative was later broadened to include the Homeland Security and Health and Human Services departments under the National Information Exchange Model, which built on the success of the Global JXDM standard.
Hitch said he believes the information-sharing program was one of his most important accomplishments at Justice.
“It’s one of the areas I’m most proud of,” he said. “I feel like some special things happened over those years. The next generation ofinformation-sharing and law enforcement tools are now in place.”
In 2004 Hitch propelled the deployment of the Justice Unified Telecommunications Network through a managed services contract that would leverage the expertise of industry and tie the network to a service-level agreement.
“JUTnet actually saved a lot of money for the department because it consolidated all these various individual networks across the country into something that made sense,” he said. “It was certainly a big advancement for the department from a procurement standpoint and from a cost-benefit standpoint.”
Hitch also had an impact across the government as a member of the federal CIO Council’s executive committee and as co-chairman of the council’s Information Security and Identity Management Committee. “We made alot of progress in terms of helping agencies bring up their capabilities in cybersecurity as that area became much more important,” he said.
In retrospect, Hitch says he feels good about his contributions to IT in government. “I feel like I was able to help address some of the key issues of our time,” including information sharing and cybersecurity, he said. “But there’s a lot more to be done.”
Though he’s now retired, Hitch is open to whatever opportunities come his way to help make government better. “I’m the kind of person who engages, and I expect to engage in the future,” he said.
Richard W. Walker is a freelance writer based in Maryland.