CIOs travel a risky path toward IT architecture

The goal of a governmentwide architecture for information technology is a lofty
one. But the reality is elusive.

The Chief Information Officers Council has made a laudable first few steps toward open
systems along a path full of traps and blind alleys.

For more than a decade, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the
Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers have sponsored a similar effort called
the Open System Environment Implementors’ Workshop (OIW). For a month each year,
dozens of private- and public-sector information technology experts gathered to build a
coherent and feasible architecture to allow interoperability and portability of

NIST and vendors established the OIW in an attempt to repair the defects of the failed
International Standards Organization’s Open Systems Interconnection model, which had
been promulgated in the absence of working prototypes and negotiated more with an eye to
politics than to technology.

Unfortunately, the group’s meetings were exercises in herding cats. The typical
participant was sent to observe and report in case anything of substance happened; the
observers expected someone else to do the work. Thus, workshop participants lacked
ownership of the workshop’s output and could not—or would not—mobilize
their corporate or agency management into support of the results.

The CIO Council has chosen a less ambitious target: an open systems architecture for
the federal government. The vision of the federal enterprise architecture is to
“serve as a reference point to facilitate the efficient and effective coordination of
common business processes, information flows, systems, and investments among federal
agencies. In time, government business processes and systems will operate seamlessly in an
enterprise architecture that provides models and standards that identify and define the
information services used throughout the government,” according to the council’s

Lofty-sounding though the vision is, it is vulnerable to the same traps into which the
OIW fell. I foresee three possible negative outcomes.

First, the council simply endorses the de facto standard—the Microsoft Corp.
product line—perhaps without saying as much, or even meaning to do so. But the
Justice Department, the federal contract crowd and a sizable number of IT vendors would
vigorously object. Their objections wouldn’t change the fact that many federal
agencies have their IT architecture essentially made in Redmond.

Second, the council may become hopelessly mired in the detailed negotiations of
technical specifications. If the council picks up where the OIW left off, it will be
stepping into quicksand. Even when management is intensely interested in tangible results,
few federal agencies are good at writing technical specifications for their own
mission-critical systems. Why would we expect more when the outcomes are far off,
difficult to measure and spread across many agencies?

Third, the council may make so many political compromises in an effort to reach
unanimity that the architecture will become as vague as the language that sanctioned it.
It would be useless. Worse, an ill-crafted architecture can hasten the Tower of Babel it
sets out to undo. Everybody can agree that the sky is green on a sunny day. It all depends
on the definitions of sky, green, sunny and day. We can fudge them so that each agency can
make its own interpretations. No rice bowls will be threatened, much less
overturned—and no one will seriously try to use the architecture to implement an
interagency application.

To avoid the pitfalls, the CIO Council should tackle the tough job of defining what it
takes to create open systems. Agencies with real interoperability requirements should
agree to tangible results and specific milestones.

The council should contract for independent assessments of interagency efforts. The
assessments should valuate progress toward achieving both the system goals and adherence
to the architectural principles. Even if the assessments were unfavorable, the reports
would be much more useful than the apple pie and motherhood prose of most interagency

Agencies would learn what works and what doesn’t, and how and why the working
group succeeded or failed. And the government would have a chance of making the
council’s architectural vision a reality. 

Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal
information management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at

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