INTERVIEW: Kim Nelson, EPA's systems chieftain

EPA's CIO also wears policy hat

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  • Kim Nelson

    Kim Nelson became the Environmental Protection Agency's CIO and assistant administrator for environmental information in November.

    Before coming to EPA, she worked for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania for 22 years at jobs in the state Senate, Public Utility Commission, and the Aging and Environmental Protection departments.

    Nelson worked for Environmental Protection for 14 years. She was the director of the Program Integration and Effectiveness Office and later was the department's CIO. Her final position there was executive deputy secretary, the second highest position in the department.

    She has a bachelor's degree from Shippensburg University and a master's degree in public administration from the University of Pennsylvania.

    GCN senior editor Wilson P. Dizard III interviewed Nelson at her Washington office.


    GCN: What is your vision for the direction of the Office of Environmental Information?

    NELSON: This is one of the few CIO positions in the government that is actually a presidentially appointed and Senate-confirmed position.

    That's important for a couple of reasons because it makes the CIO an equal in the organization. My title is assistant administrator for environmental information and CIO.

    This office isn't just dealing with the wires and machines and keeping the boxes humming. Our mission is very broad. We have analytical responsibilities.

    For instance, our whole Office of Information Analysis and Access is one you don't typically find under a CIO. Setting standards and policies for the entire organization in terms of how we collect information and the kind of information we collect falls under this office.

    GCN: When will your office roll out the Regulatory Public Access System, which will increase public access to dockets and regulatory information? How will the system work, and what are its benefits?

    NELSON: The schedule for introduction is some time this spring. We actually have it in use, working out bugs. It's ready to be announced any day. This is clearly what e-government is about, using technology to not only serve the citizens but to serve the employees of the organization.

    I have found that too often employees find new systems almost more burdensome than the old way of doing business.
    This is a system that will make it much easier for any citizen to file comments or review regulatory proposals that the agency has out for comment.

    It also should make it much easier for our own staff to review and compile those comments. Internally, it will improve our work efficiency, but the service it will provide to the public is tremendous in terms of making the government much more accessible and open.

    GCN: How is your office responding to the greater need for security in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks?

    NELSON: We are doing a couple of things. We are dealing with all of the issues that we had to deal with even before Sept. 11. EPA had a number of issues regarding security that came to the surface as a result of General Accounting Office audits.

    One way we are addressing these issues is by evaluating the information we make publicly available. We are looking at how we make that information available to the right people at the right time at the right place in a secure fashion.

    We are also looking at a new security structure that would have more levels of security to it.

    We are creating an extranet so we can secure communications with first responders and on-site coordinators at emergency sites.

    For example, if we ever had to shut the Web site down, we would still need a way to communicate with people who are at emergency sites. So we are developing a security hierarchy that will allow that kind of communication.

    GCN: Is EPA moving toward adopting Web technologies such as Extensible Markup Language and other standards that let systems interact regardless of language or platform?

    NELSON: It is one of my highest priorities this year. One of the things we have going for us here is that the president put $25 million in our current budget and $25 million in his proposed budget for next year for a grant program to states.

    The purpose of that grant program is to build the capacity with our state partners to better share information. One of the reasons I am in this job now is that I spent my last three or four years with the Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Department working with EPA to address how we can we do a better job of sharing information. And that sharing of information will be based on technologies like XML.

    GCN: What are the next steps in the National Environmental Information Exchange Network and the Central Data Exchange'projects through which EPA plans to improve coordination with state and tribal environmental agencies?

    NELSON: CDX is EPA's node on this national network. We currently are evaluating proposals, and our goal is by spring to have selected a vendor to build a robust portal that will be the Central Data Exchange.

    CDX will be the single point through which we receive all electronic information from our data exchange partners. It's important that we have the capability to identify the person or the organization submitting the information so we can authenticate that person and assure that the data we get from CDX meets all of our standards.

    One of the big issues we have is a concern about data quality, and we hope CDX will help with that.

    GCN: How can the CIO team design system architectures for appropriate security, maintainability and lowest lifecycle cost?

    NELSON: Establishing an enterprisewide architecture is one of the most important things we can do. I have combined two organizations within OEI'a very small architecture team and an integration team'to build up our architecture team.

    GCN: Providing electronic transactions is becoming an important mission for agencies. What are your goals?

    NELSON: Electronic government should provide some efficiencies within the agency. But it is going to take a while before we realize those efficiencies because we have to maintain dual systems while we are getting there.

    That is costly because you have to maintain the old way of doing business, which is accepting paper, and then you have to build and support the new way of doing business, which is electronic government. So it's going to be a while before we start to see some efficiencies.

    What's more important in terms of being able to receive information electronically is that we will be able to receive more timely information. And real-time information is increasingly important as we get into real-time methods of monitoring the environment. And then we will be able to accept more data electronically.

    We'll be able to get information about the environment more quickly, which will give us a better picture of what is really happening, and it will be higher-quality information because it will be validated before it comes in to us.

    GCN: If you could wave a magic wand over EPA's IT department and change one thing, what would it be?

    NELSON: It would be skill mix. It would be getting the right people with the right skills in the right job at the right time.

    When this office was created, it was created from a lot of other offices within EPA. I think most people in this organization would agree that we don't always have the right person in the right job.

    We are heavily reliant on contractors in this organization. Some people may say that is good. We have some parts of our organization where there is one federal employee for every 10 contractors. That becomes very difficult to manage.

    I don't think we need more people. I just think we need a different mix of skills in the organization.

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