BIA: Lack of funding stalls upgrade efforts

BIA: Lack of funding stalls upgrade efforts

'We are tremendously underfunded,' BIA's Dom Nessi says

By Tony Lee Orr

GCN Staff

A lack of money could hinder the Bureau of Indian Affairs' efforts to upgrade its information technology infrastructure, delaying a much-needed modernization by up to two years, BIA systems officials say.

The slow budget process has hampered the Office of Information Resources Management's efforts to bring the struggling bureau into the new century, BIA chief information officer Dom Nessi said.

No money now

Nessi said he does not expect to get the funding necessary to modernize BIA systems before fiscal 2003'despite pressure from the General Accounting Office, the Interior Department inspector general and Congress for improvements in the agency's management of tribal assets.

'They just started the 2001 budget,' he said. 'And the 2002 budget is already in the can, so to speak. So now we must look for good cost justification for the 2003 budget. But I would not expect Congress or the president to fund any agency's IT budget without a good plan.'

Even so, the agency still needs money for some systems fixes and maintenance, he said. 'We are just tremendously underfunded, so much so that we can't even acquire some of the assistance that we need,' Nessi said.

The only way to cope with the lack of funds is to do better short-term planning, Nessi said. The agency's new CIO staff is looking at collaborative efforts, internal planning and specific problems that it can resolve, he said.

Longtime BIA technology workers said it was the bureau's failure to fund its IT infrastructure properly that landed the agency in its current shape.

Often those in the field were left behind as technology advanced, said John Ashley, a supervisory computer specialist and IRM manager in Albuquerque, N.M.

'There was no leadership to review what happened out in the field and what was needed for business practices,' he said.

Today's situation is the same-old, same-old, said Ashley, who has been with BIA for 30 years.

'It's like d'j' vu all over again,' he said. 'What BIA is doing now is nothing new. In my recollection, we have tried this three times.'

Prior budget shortfalls forced workers in the field to be innovative, said Brian Bowker, a regional administrative officer for BIA's Western Region in Phoenix.

Bowker, who has been with BIA since 1988, said IT has never gotten the attention it needed except in situations where it became like an unruly child, embarrassing the agency.

'We've been bringing this up for years, and no one has been paying attention,' Bowker said.

For senior management, IT is not an issue, he said. 'They look at the Land Consolidation Act and probate backlog reduction,' he said. 'And I think those are IRM issues.'

Nessi agreed that BIA has tried to break its bad resource management habits.

'This has been tried before,' he said. 'Probably by people better than me.'

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