The road to e-commerce is a long one

Name: Kim Mitchel, deputy associate commissioner
of the Office of Telecommunications and Systems Operations

Agency: Social Security Administration

Length of Service: 28 years

Age: 50

Education: Bachelor’s degree in science education
and mathematics, California University of Pennsylvania; master’s degree in numerical
science, Johns Hopkins University; doctoral candidate in policy sciences, University of
Maryland, Baltimore County.

E-mail address: [email protected]

Responsibilities: As deputy associate commissioner for
telecommunications and systems operations, I share management responsibilities for
SSA’s telecommunications networks and computer systems. Currently, my focal
responsibility is to plan, implement and manage an electronic commerce infrastructure to
support the agency’s e-commerce initiatives.

Most exciting aspect of my job: There are so many
it’s hard to choose one. Having the opportunity to work with and learn from a great
diversity of people within the government as well as in the private sector is always very
exciting. We get to share ideas with foreign governments and outstanding re-searchers from

Also, it’s exciting to re-engineer information technology systems or plan and
build new IT infrastructures and then watch how they improve government services.

For example, I worked on planning and implementing the agency’s original e-mail
system, and it’s rewarding to see how it has grown in use and benefits over its short
10-year life span. Although it initially met with resistance from many people who thought
e-mail was not necessary, time has changed attitudes, and e-mail is now a routine part of
everyone’s business day.

Now I have a similar opportunity to work on an e-gov infrastructure. SSA is already
trading about 100,000 files per month with numerous partners, and more are added almost
every day. Just about every day, I hear another idea someone in the agency has for using
the e-commerce infrastructure we are building. This creates a very exciting work
environment in which new ideas, new knowledge and new technology are put to use in
improving service to our growing community of customers.

The greatest challenges facing federal e-commerce: Most
of us in the e-gov business share the National Partnership for Reinventing Government
vision of ubiquitous data transmission. The transmission vehicle, the Internet, is already
in place, and as it becomes faster and more reliable, it will begin to replace private

But there are a lot of hurdles ahead to get to the point of such ubiquitous data
transmissions. One hurdle is ensuring that e-gov systems will be secure and private. To
that end, we need to solve the problems of message authentication and secure transmission
of messages over the Internet. It would be nice if we could work to develop an
authentication infrastructure that can be used by many agencies for multiple purposes.

Fortunately, both the General Services Administration and the Postal Service are
working on such an infrastructure. Their efforts to date look extremely
promising—USPS has developed some great technology—and should enable us to leap
that hurdle in the very near future and become successful in deploying many new e-gov

Ironically, success with an authentication and security infrastructure will take us to
the next set of hurdles, which are apparent to people like me who work at the
infrastructure level. This includes developing the electronic management tools for
handling millions of transmitted data files and messages. Many e-commerce vendors
concentrate on the transmission piece alone and have not worked on tools to manage the
behemoth infrastructures that will result from files and messages moving at the speed of
light across strands of fiber.

A final hurdle I must mention is that e-commerce and its technology are so dynamic that
it is difficult for agencies to adapt quickly enough to embrace the changes. By the time
personnel have learned one product or technology well, a new and better one comes along.

We need to provide additional technical and business training to our IT specialists to
ensure they will be ready to apply the appropriate technology to solve the business
problems. That is difficult to do in an era of downsizing and training budget cuts.
Knowledge management strategies will be key to our success.

The biggest issue in federal e-commerce: The federal
government is different from the private sector in many aspects, including scope,
requirements for privacy and security, and the many diverse, complex and even conflicting
mission requirements.

Much of the e-commerce technology developed for the private sector is not easily
transferred to the federal government. Often the technology isn’t robust enough to
accommodate the huge volume of federal government applications. At SSA, our workload
volumes, privacy and security considerations, and enterprise management requirements have
stressed virtually every off-the-shelf product we have, and e-commerce will be no

Some experts will say that the government simply needs to re-engineer itself to be more
like private industry—then the same tools will work. Those experts would be missing
the point that government is inherently different. I see my colleagues from all government
agencies struggling with this problem.

The key is for consortiums of government agencies to work with industry to ensure that
the requirements of the government are being met.

The most exciting new technologies in e-commerce: The
set of e-commerce technology systems I am most excited about is being developed by the
Postal Service with the private sector. The USPS e-proof technology provides for
authenticated, secure, encrypted transmission over the Internet of any size file and
returns a certified postmark or receipt—all with the backing of several hundred years
of postal law.

More importantly, with an existing physical presence in every hamlet of the nation and
its status as one of the most trusted government agencies, the Postal Service is in an
excellent position to provide an affordable and accessible nationwide authentication
infrastructure. At SSA, we have successfully completed a few small trials using the
technology and are now working on additional trials with USPS.

What best prepared me for this job: Actually, I’m
preparing for this job every day and to do it well likely means that I will always be

The greatest influences in my career: Education,
serendipity and freedom. Formal education has been extremely important to my career. Mine
has been diverse and continues so.

Of course, the best education comes from learning from other people and life
experiences. My sons have taught me so very much and friends, co-workers and even
strangers all have had a significant influence on my career.

Understanding and being grateful for my interdependence on others has been the greatest
part of my education and has likely helped my career.

Other interests: Besides family and school, I look for
time for hiking and visiting national parks, especially historic sites. 

—Richard W. Walker


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