New DHS IT chief faces big challenges, impatient Congress

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GCN Photo by Olivier Douliery

As the Homeland Security Department's new CIO, Scott Charbo faces tougher and more immediate challenges than most agency technology executives.

The Agriculture Department CIO, whom President Bush last week appointed to lead DHS' technology programs, must weave together the agency's IT infrastructure and retain valuable technology employees, observers say. He follows Steve Cooper, a respected visionary who tried with debatable success to shape the agency's current IT infrastructure.

An early vote of confidence came from chief procurement officer Greg Rothwell, who said in an e-mail message, 'I am pleased that Scott is joining the DHS team. So far, DHS has had a CIO with private-sector experience, Steve Cooper, and an acting CIO with federal experience, [Coast Guard Rear] Adm. Ronald T. Hewitt.

'Scott's background and accomplishments in both the private ector and at Agriculture make him an ideal candidate as CIO and have prepared him for the major challenges at DHS,' Rothwell said. 'I look forward to working with him.'

Charbo had long been rumored to replace Cooper, the agency's first CIO, who joined the American Red Cross in March as CIO and executive vice president. Hewitt, acting CIO since Cooper's departure, likely will resume deputy CIO duties.

Congress had signaled that Charbo's honeymoon could be short.
Rep. Bennie G. Thompson (Miss.), ranking Democrat on the House Homeland Security Committee, said, 'Scott Charbo is going to face many challenges because the department is still struggling to eliminate the divisions inherited from the 22 legacy agencies that were rolled into DHS.
'The Department still has to establish performance measures to protect against control weaknesses that put assets, financial information and sensitive information at risk, and to fully implement the Federal Information Security Management Act, which requires that each agency develop, document and implement [an] agencywide information security program,' Thompson added.

A key issue is that secretary Michael Chertoff is expected within weeks to release a reorganization plan for the department that could uproot existing IT projects [GCN, March 21, Page 16].

Several analysts also said one of Charbo's challenges would be stemming the flow of talented IT specialists and program executives out of the department.

While DHS faces large gaps in its senior political management ranks [GCN, April 18, Page 1], many mid-level career officials also have left in frustration over the department's disorganization and infighting, the observers said.
Homeland security IT analyst T. Jeff Vining, vice president of Gartner Research, said Charbo's 'challenges will include merging the department's disparate and diverse missions and organizations into a single unit and having a smaller budget and staff than the directorate CIOs.'
James Lewis, director of the Center for Technology and Public Policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, noted that Charbo will be moving from a well-integrated department to a merging conglomerate, so the management challenges will be different.
'There is probably a good bit of redundancy at DHS that can be squeezed out,' Lewis said.

Consolidating redundant systems was something Charbo did well at Agriculture, where he trimmed $162 million from the IT budget through consolidation.

Paul Rosenzweig, senior legal research fellow for the Heritage Foundation in Washington, said Hewitt's biggest problem had been forging a unified IT structure at DHS.

'Despite 2 1/2 or three years of hard effort, the department isn't there. It doesn't have unified policies on anything ranging from new purchases to data sharing among agencies. It is a real challenge for them,' he said. Charbo was an attractive candidate because of his success at USDA and his quiet but forceful personality, observers inside and outside government say. Agriculture is historically a decentralized department, and Charbo focused on forging its bureaus into a unified enterprise. Earlier, he was president of mPower3 Inc. of Greeley, Colo., a subsidiary of ConAgra Foods Inc. of Omaha, Neb.

Before becoming Agriculture's CIO in September 2002, Charbo worked at USDA's Farm Service Agency for two months.

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