INTERVIEW: Karen Hogan, Commerce's driving digital force

Push is on to create Digital Department

Karen Hogan

Karen Hogan wears several hats: She is director of the Commerce Department's Office of Departmentwide Programs; she is acting deputy chief information officer; and she is the manager of Commerce's Digital Department initiative.

Running the Digital Department program is 'a mixed bag' and a real challenge, Hogan said, because the small office lacks the funding and staff it needs to accomplish its mission.

Hogan began her government career in the Defense Department. She spent 17 years there, gaining experience in all areas of information technology from strategic planning and technology budgeting to systems standardization and procurement.

In 1995, she left DOD to become administrator for computer and telecommunications operations at the Patent and Trademark Office, where she oversaw one of the government's largest data processing centers. From there, Hogan moved to Commerce, serving as associate director for information technology and CIO at the Census Bureau.

Hogan has a bachelor's degree in elementary education and library science from Madison College and a master's degree in information systems from George Washington University.

Freelance writer Merry Mayer interviewed Hogan by telephone.

GCN: As part of your Digital Department initiative, one goal was to link all Washington-area Commerce Department employees to an intranet by last month. Did you achieve that goal?

HOGAN: We are about 90 percent there right now. There are a few last hurdles to overcome in terms of hardware connectivity, with a couple of the units. It is just a matter of completing some testing to make sure the connectivity works before we open up the path for the employees. Probably 98 percent of our employees in the D.C. area have access. About 90 percent of our bureau activity is there.

GCN: What about putting public forms on the Internet?

HOGAN: We have all of our forms that we collect from more than 10,000 people available on the Internet with the exception of our Census Bureau data collection and a few of our National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration collections. These last two require personal interviews.

GCN: You were given the Digital Department task without a budget. How hard has it been to get bureaus and their systems staffs to buy in to the program?

HOGAN: The buy-in is not real difficult in terms of the fact that we all know that is the right way to go. The difficult part is sharing financial and human resources to accomplish our goal.

But we have overcome the human part by putting together affinity groups that work from across the department to come up with common solutions and make recommendations. Then, the department's Chief Information Officers Council approves or modifies those recommendations for implementation.

We have a number of different purchasing models, some where the bureaus pay by a percentage of how much they will be using the system. So we found different ways to share the cost of these things across the department.

GCN: How has the budget process affected the program?

HOGAN: It just makes it more difficult. Central funding is always easier when you are trying to do centralized things. The fact that we don't have a large budget also means we don't have a large program office, which means we do a lot more collaboration with the operating units. That is actually a good thing.

GCN: Did you run into any resistance at first, people not wanting to change their systems or how they did things?

HOGAN: We've encountered amazingly little resistance, partly because of the approaches we've taken with collaboration both with the functional sponsors and with the operating units. So there is a lot of buy-in that happens before decisions get made. So we haven't had any push back on that.

On our intranet side, where we have put it up for the employees, we have people accepting it as an additional resource for their folks, and they are happy with it.

Where we have focused so far is on administrative kinds of applications, which we do share across the department'we share the need, as well as the solution. Where we have not interjected ourselves is into the program areas because our programs are very different.

GCN: Will you eventually start doing that?

HOGAN: The main things we are trying to do, for the department as a whole, are in the infrastructure area. Solutions like a public-key infrastructure that we can all share so our customers don't have different ways of interacting with different parts of the department.

We are just embarking on that endeavor, so it is still to be determined how well we get that implemented throughout the department. I think we have a good opportunity for success on that.

GCN: Taken as a microcosm, how would you compare your oversight of the effort to that of a governmentwide CIO?

HOGAN: The same kind of approach would be recommended: Collect the people who have the problem and let them come up with a solution that they can all stand behind in the end and implement. A top-down, heavy-handed approach wouldn't work. A central solution that people are told to follow doesn't work.

GCN: Are there any pitfalls that you would tell a federal CIO to avoid?

HOGAN: I think the pitfalls would be in thinking things are simpler and more straightforward than they actually are.

There is a lot of complexity in implementing any kind of solution for anything, and you always find unexpected things, whether it is something in an infrastructure or a particular program need.

Sometimes you find there is something physically in the infrastructure that doesn't let you implement the way you thought you would or there is some personnel issue or some process glitch that you just have to work around. So expecting things to be straightforward and simple even when they appeared that they could be would be a pitfall to avoid.

Assuming that people are going to share their money and their people is another pitfall. I found that people tend to be wary of combining dollars that are separately appropriated to a common end.

What's more

  • Family: Newlywed

  • Hobbies: Ornamental gardening, piano, travel and golf

  • Last book read: Bernard Cornwell's Arthur trilogy—The Winter King, Enemy of God and Excalibur—and Thomas Maude's Guided by a Stone Mason

  • Special activity: Teaching computer skills to children in Appalachia each summer

  • Favorite Web site:

GCN: In your career so far, what has been your toughest challenge or hurdle?

HOGAN: My toughest challenge arises when people I am working with'whether they are peers, subordinates or people who I am subordinate to'don't do what they agree to do. There are times when people put their heads together, decide what they are going to do, walk out of the room, and go off and do that, and it works. When folks go off and don't do that, I find that to be very difficult to deal with.
I have encountered that in a couple of different situations, at different levels in the organizations that I have been in. Other than that, the tough hurdles are dealing with the constraints that are put on us in terms of personnel and budget resources. Maybe not as much in this particular job, but in some of the previous ones, we didn't have the right people to do the jobs that needed to get done, and it was difficult to reorient and retrain.

GCN: How difficult has it been to keep good IT people and to recruit them?

HOGAN: The problem we are facing is that we have an aging work force. A lot of our folks will be eligible to retire in the next few years. Filling behind them is going to be a bigger issue than individual vacancies we have tried to fill over the past several years.

There is a problem already with retaining well-trained network people. As soon as they get some really good training and the great experience they get in the government'doing things they might not have the opportunity to do as early in their careers on the outside'they can be gone at a much higher salary. There is no way we can compete with that. That is where I see our toughest problem.

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