West aims to make e-government a safe bet
West aims to make e-government a safe bet
BY RICHARD W. WALKER
| GCN STAFF
You can't do electronic government without the right infrastructure. And you can't build the right infrastructure without security.
If you're talking security, you might want to start with Barry West of the General Services Administration's Office of Electronic Government.
'This office is really focused on such things as Extensible Markup Language technology, smart-card technology and security,' said West, OEG's expert for information assurance.
As part of GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy, OEG's stated mission is to provide 'central leadership and management for the use of electronic government in the federal government.'
Its 20-member staff concentrates chiefly on executing the underlying technologies critical to furthering e-government and developing policies for using those technologies.
Security, in particular, has been on the back burner for too long, West said.
'You'd be surprised at the number of agencies that don't have security plans in place. It's a basic concept, but it has just been set aside. We had the year 2000 effort, and before that re-engineering was the big buzzword. We've never really gotten to the point where security has been given the attention it needs.'
A governmentwide chief information officer, if appointed, could cross barriers and implement e-government, GSA's Barry West said.
The Office of Electronic Government is moving security to the front burner. 'Agencies need ways to secure online access to government information and services,' said Mary J. Mitchell, deputy assistant administrator for OEG. 'But they also need ways to achieve interoperability of digital signature certificates, allowing the public to authenticate and sign documents with a number of federal programs.'
As OEG's security expert, West is principally concerned with advancing public-key infrastructure tools, which are considered the best way to secure and authenticate transactions on the Internet.
'What I'm trying to do is create a framework for what PKI is all about, including best practices and lessons learned,' he said. 'I'm really driving that whole technology here at GSA.'
Right now, West is shepherding several agencies looking at ways to secure Web transactions, including the Social Security Administration and the Veterans Affairs Department.
'My job is to help them facilitate that movement forward and help them understand PKI,' West said.
As a sideline to this effort, he is developing a PKI users guide.
West is chairman of the Federal PKI Technical Working Group, a subcommittee of the Federal PKI Steering Committee. He consults with agencies already using the technology, such as the Patent and Trademark Office.PTO out front
'PTO is one of our first agencies to get PKI implemented,' he said. 'The PTO folks have two or three applications that they're using PKI for. So I keep in touch with them. I ask, 'How are things going? What problems are you seeing?' '
As a hardcore techie, West has found that his duties sometimes transcend security policy and issues.
For example, when he arrived at OEG last May after spending 12 years in the systems trenches at the Commerce Department, GSA quickly put him to work as the lead technical adviser on the fledgling FirstGov Web portal project.
'Even though [OEG officials] brought me in for security, they felt this project was so critical'there was a 90-day mandate to have it implemented'that they thought it would be good for me to get involved,' West said. 'We had it launched on Sept. 22.'
The firstgov.gov site'a one-stop portal that provides links to agencies, organizations, services and programs across the federal government'indexes more than 30 million Web pages.
Although West is no longer involved day-to-day with FirstGov, he still consults as the FirstGov team maneuvers the site into its second phase, the integration of links to state and local government sites.
West recently met with Alisoun Moore, Maryland's chief information officer, who is preparing to launch an e-Maryland portal next month.
'She's definitely on board and for working together on this,' West said. 'We really see the two Web sites joining together and having links that feed off each other back and forth.'
For West, working for OEG has added policy experience to a resume long on accomplishments in pure IT.
Building on an early knack for computers, West earned a bachelor's degree in information systems from Northern Michigan University while he was in the Air Force in the 1980s.
While posted in Alaska, he helped the Air Force set up a system that automated weather observations for the entire state.
After leaving the service in 1988, West landed a job with the Census Bureau, initially building systems for the bureau's processing offices as the 1990 Census loomed.
He moved up through the ranks to become the bureau's chief computer analyst in 1992 and led an initiative to automate the bureau's information collection systems using notebook computers.
In 1996, West moved over to the National Technical Information Service, a component of the Commerce Department's Technology Administration and a clearinghouse for some 3.5 million government technical documents.New challenge
At NTIS, he headed a project to streamline the agency's imaging system by integrating a database and a document management system with high-speed printers. The new system produced documents in two to four minutes, so NTIS customers no longer had to wait up to 12 days.
After four years at NTIS, West began sniffing around for a new challenge.
'I started talking to a few people, and they said, 'GSA would be a great place to be with your background. GSA is moving ahead with leading-edge technologies and setting policy governmentwide,' ' West said.
So when he got an offer from the Office of Electronic Government, West'who has CIO aspirations'grabbed it.
'I didn't really have a policy background,' he said. 'My background is pretty much technical. To be a good CIO you need that policy background. And policy is what this office is really geared for. We're not out there writing code and implementing it.'
West is working on an executive CIO certificate at the University of Maryland. He's also teaching computer science part-time at a community college.
As a specialist in e-government initiatives, West said his biggest challenge is getting agencies on board with new technologies such as PKI.
'It's really been tough,' he said. 'PKI is the perfect example. The technology is out there for using this for authentication purposes.'