DHS Special Report | Integration takes root

Procurement traction fosters IT efforts, fledgling projects

Secretary Michael Chertoff is paying particular attention to the Secure Border Initiative.

Chip Somodevilla

As the federal government's newest cabinet department, the Homeland Security Department got the last pick of available federal real estate. At one point early in its history, homeland security IT leaders faced the prospect of exile from their prestigious base across Pennsylvania Avenue from the White House to remote and unfashionable Chantilly, Va.

But the first DHS secretary, Tom Ridge, who had been governor of Pennsylvania as well as a congressman and understood the prestige value of location, forced federal realtors to provide more central quarters.

Federal landlords responded to DHS' request for downtown offices with a certain irony, locating the CIO and chief procurement offices right next to a freight rail line that routinely carries long trains of tank cars loaded with toxic chemicals.

The building's featureless exterior is matched by an equally stark and mostly windowless interior with narrow corridors. In one sunless room that houses the Chief Procurement Officer's IT Acquisition Center, a warren of identical cubicles rises to eye level and forms a trackless maze.

Yet, in a subtle sign that the department's beleaguered acquisition staff is making headway, each cubicle today bears a paper sign stating the function of the ITAC official assigned to that workspace. Many of the signs are detailed, describing carefully distinguished assignments with specific demarcations of authority.

The cubicle signs, if not exactly decorous, collectively signal that ITAC has reached a level of organization where its staff is not only carefully organized but populated well enough to carefully allocate its intensively managed functions.

Buying frenzy

That's in contrast to the department's early days, when DHS' technology procurement operation was simply a frantic hustle to buy thousands of PCs, servers and other basic IT equipment.

Now, the procurement operation reflects an elaborate and well-organized management structure. That in turn is paving the way for more effective technology performance across the department.

A modest number of IT and security initiatives are now gaining traction'including border screening and targeting programs, port and harbor monitoring, and the use of geospatial mapping to improve disaster response, as GCN reported last week. In this, the second of a two-part special report on DHS, GCN looks at several fledgling and pending IT projects that form pockets of promise.

Consolidating DHS' crazy quilt of data networks and merging its disparate data centers will speed the process of consolidating systems and imposing standards across the department's infrastructure, officials say.

One of the most ambitious opportunities DHS has to establish itself as a department that can efficiently manage technology projects is the Secure Border Initiative-Net program to upgrade technology along the border.

Secretary Michael Chertoff has publicly associated himself with the success of the border technology upgrade; he leads weekly project status meetings, SBI.net program director Greg Giddens recently said.

DHS' technology makeover follows the tracks laid by its evolving enterprise architecture, which mandates a push to clear the department's underbrush of redundant or obsolete systems and standardize those remaining.

'The promise and plans to integrate the DHS infrastructure were laid out early [in the department's development],' DHS' outgoing chief technology officer, Lee Holcomb, said during a recent interview.

'This year it is really happening,' Holcomb continued. 'We have begun the path [to integration across the enterprise].'

Holcomb has a large chart on his office wall that shows how each DHS system falls into one of 38 IT portfolios.

The chart, speckled with green, yellow and red boxes, also records the security status of each application.

As DHS pinpoints overlapping or redundant systems, its technology managers have been able to shut down some networks and turn off some applications.
'We call them roadkill,' Holcomb said.

The department's IT leaders increasingly are viewing DHS operations from the perspective of delivering transaction services.

Holcomb said, 'The [Citizenship and Immigration Services] modernization effort and the [Federal Emergency Management Agency] assistance programs each are candidates for being offered as transaction-based services.'

The potential shift in how the department provides services could drive changes in DHS' business processes and prompt additional IT outsourcing.

Improved control

The department's increasing ability to consider and potentially adopt progressive IT methods such as transaction-based services and service-oriented architectures flows from improved control over the systems it inherited from its 22 predecessor agencies and built at some 30 additional organizations it founded.

Department IT leaders increasingly are driving down the DHS architecture into existing and new agencies, to improve control of system security and configuration, among other features.

'For the first two years, we didn't have a strategic plan [for managing the directorate's IT],' said Charles Church, CIO of the Preparedness Directorate and director of its Information and Technology Division, referring to his directorate's earlier incarnation, the Information Assurance and Infrastructure Protection Directorate.

'Now, we are in Version 2.0 [of the directorate's enterprise architecture] and soon we [will] have Version 3.0,' Church said.

As the Preparedness Directorate's IT makeover gathers momentum, Church and his team also are cutting back systems that are no longer needed.

Adopting a disciplined EA such as the one Church is building progressively improves the directorate's ability to share information, not only upward to department leaders but down to state and local preparedness agencies that receive DHS grants.

'We are going to use the enterprise architecture to make business decisions that will drive the technology,' Church said. 'We are focusing strongly on early adoption of the enterprise architecture.'

Some of the IT efficiency improvements have been in the department's back-office operations, where they pave the way for more effective administrative systems.

As technology units have taken on more responsibility for the department's IT work, transfers to other departments for support services have fallen from a rate of $500 million to $100 million annually, according to a senior executive who has held both DHS and industry jobs.

James Carafano, senior fellow at the Heritage Foundation, pointed to progress in the DHS organization that paved the way for better management, such as Chertoff's imposition of a clear chain of command via the Second Stage Review.

'Then Chertoff shifted his attention to technology,' Carafano said, adding that the technology process upgrades aren't complete.

'But if the management team sticks until end of administration, and they don't have distractions over the next two years, they could evolve a rational system for managing technology,' he said.

The ultimate state of DHS technology development will more likely be tested not so much by inspector general reports, hearings and auditors' evaluations, but by its performance in national crises.

One of the most timely and shrewd observations about DHS' ability to focus on upgrading its IT came from a vendor executive deeply engaged with the department. 'First on Chertoff's list is disaster preparedness,' the executive said. 'If we get another hurricane like Katrina, he will be finished.'

Chertoff has staked his career partly on the department's performance during hurricane season.

'The result of all these efforts [including technology upgrades] is that we're on a much more solid footing this year, and much more prepared as a nation than we've ever been to confront a major hurricane,' he told a recent press conference.

At the same time, many initiatives are still being rolled out.

For example, in the high-profile and much-discussed FEMA logistics upgrades, DHS has been able to deploy its Global Positioning System-enabled supply tracking system in only two of the agency's 10 regions: Region IV in Atlanta and Region VI in Fort Worth, Texas.

And the underlying challenge that DHS continues to face is retaining key personnel.
The strains of DHS' far-reaching responsibilities and the internal stresses that still plague the department since its creation continue to take their toll on personnel.

While DHS appears to be demonstrating genuine progress, and growing promise, on the IT front, the stakes are rising as well. A major failure in the current hurricane season could sweep away not only some of the department's fledgling systems, but more key personnel'and possibly Chertoff's Washington career as well.

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