IT tests await Bush

IT tests await Bush

Considered a systems-savvy governor, new president will find agency projects in transition


President George W. Bush is about to discover that not everything is bigger in Texas.

The new administration faces myriad Goliath-size information technology woes at which federal workers have been aiming their slingshots for years.

The question remains: Will the incoming Bush team be as effective as David was?

Problems include security weaknesses, modernization challenges, systems work force shortages and budget shortfalls (see story, Page 7).

Texas agencies tackled similar issues during Bush's governorship. Carolyn Purcell, the state's chief information officer, attributes much of Texas' IT progress to Bush's support (see story, Page 12).

But in the federal government, the intertwined issues of security, privacy and interoperability have created seemingly intractable problems for many departments.

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size="2" color="#FF0000">President Bush, joined by national security team members Colin Powell, far left, and Donald Rumsfeld, top right, arrive at Pentagon for a Defense briefing.

For example, Defense Department contractors are working on making medical records Web-ready so military personnel can receive treatment at facilities throughout the country. Officials plan to link Defense medical records systems with Veterans Affairs Department systems to allow a seamless transfer between miliitary service and civilian life.

Security for such data exchange must be ironclad. But hired hackers succeeded in breaching VA's systems, gaining access to sensitive financial and medical data for roughly 3.2 million veterans, VA's inspector general has reported [GCN, Oct. 2, 2000, Page 1].

DOD contractors said efforts to link the two departments' systems have slowed because of worries that military records would be compromised by poor security at VA.

In Texas, Bush approved funds to standardize accounting systems across state agencies. But the federal government's financial systems demands dwarf the Lone Star State's challenges.

At least 20 agencies failed to meet the requirements of the Federal Financial Management Improvement Act because stovepipe systems limit data-sharing, even within agencies, the General Accounting Office and department IGs reported last year [GCN, July 24, 2000, Page 1].

During the campaign, Bush said he would hold all agency chiefs responsible for financial standards, requiring their agencies to pass audits by the 2002 budget cycle.

But federal officials told Congress last year that compliance isn't simple. Deploying new financial software is not a quick or sure fix because agencies must extract and convert data from legacy systems.

The IT work force shortages aggravate many systems challenges.

The government is bracing to lose up to 25 percent of its personnel, including IT workers, to retirement in the next three to five years, but Bush has said he will downsize government by not replacing roughly half of the 80,000 expected middle-management retirees.

That will likely drive more federal managers to IT outsourcing, said Harris N. Miller, president of the Information Technology Association of America of Arlington, Va.

Another industry analyst agreed.

The trend has already begun, said Robert Deller, president of Markess International Inc. of Chevy Chase, Md. He pointed to the government's aggressive and creative attempts to increase its use of seat management.

Also, government officials are ready to develop partnerships with industry to share program management responsibility, he said.

The loss of midlevel managers will both necessitate and thwart such collaboration, he said.

'There is no question that there will have to be some increased dependency on industry,' Deller said. 'But the question is: How is that dependency going to be managed if the managers are gone?'

Bush has a history of using technology to streamline government, Texas' Purcell said.

Miller offered a word of caution: 'The federal government, which has quite frankly been a lagger behind many of the state governments, can in fact become a leader again. But it is going to take top leadership. It's not going to happen by accident.'

Bush will likely continue the electronic-government push the Clinton administration started. The Internet should let citizens drill through federal bureaucracy to directly access information and transact business, Bush has said.

'The explosive growth of the Internet has transformed the relationship between customers and businesses,' the Bush campaign platform noted. 'It is also transforming the relationship between citizens and government.'

But highly transactional Web projects have run afoul of Congress, raising privacy and information assurance concerns among lawmakers who simultaneously are making demands that government services be more accessible.

The Environmental Protection Agency shut down its Web site in February after a GAO hacking team accessed sensitive data. GAO reports revealed in June that several Energy Department Web sites lacked firewalls.

A true citizen-centered government will require the integration of government systems, along with the implementation of adequate security and privacy protections, Bush has said.

The new president also supports the creation of a governmentwide CIO to oversee e-government initiatives and other crosscutting issues such as systems integration. But Bush wouldn't create a new position in the classic sense.

The president has said he would issue an executive order designating the Office of Management and Budget's deputy director for management as the federal CIO. A budget of $100 million earmarked for governmentwide projects would empower the position.

Some Bush observers had speculated that the new president might create a senior White House technology adviser or czar. But Bush spokesman Ari Fleishcher said the president has promised to create no such job.

OMB is too short-staffed and underfunded to deal with governmentwide IT issues, Deller said. The agency essentially has had that role since the passage of the IT Management Reform Act of 1996, which created the legions of federal CIOs.

A member of the White House staff would be more effective in that post, Deller said. OMB historically has not had the money to carry out the government's broad IT missions.

Although the fiscal 2001 budget has been approved, Bush administration officials have some control over how the dollars are spent.

The new administration will quickly tweak the existing budget to personalize it and could reallocate funds for a federal CIO office, an OMB spokeswoman said.

Assistant managing editor Wilson P. Dizard III contributed to this report.

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