Rare chance

Thomas R. Temin

President Bush's Homeland Security Department proposal has sparked speculation about technology, systems, processes and goals. It represents a rare chance to correctly align business goals with technology and create, as Bush put it in a speech last month, 'a modern agency as efficient as the best corporation in America.' An agency, Bush added pointedly, 'that actually works.'

It may be premature to talk about databases, middleware, enterprise applications and so on. Let's assume Congress and the administration eventually agree on how to create this department. Numerous decisions'critical, complex and fraught with politics'loom before any two systems can be hooked up. How would the Immigration and Naturalization Service share data with, say, the Secret Service? How does the Federal Emergency Management Agency communicate with the Coast Guard?

What would the policy relationship be between HSD and agencies not directly involved, such as the CIA, FBI, Federal Aviation Administration or the Defense Department?

Those heartbreaking tales of information not passed on, patterns not matched and tips not followed up are, after all, fundamentally failures of management and policy, not of IT. Simply lashing a bunch of disparate agencies together won't by itself make them function seamlessly.

Systems integration goes a lot faster if everyone reports to the same boss. In that sense, those who see the world through a management lens are right. The goals and processes come before the bits and bytes.

Nevertheless, I have a strong sense that the whole HSD initiative is fundamentally driven by the need to use technology to enhance security within the United States. At many agencies, including those included and not included in HSD, management weaknesses manifest themselves in crummy systems. Yet crummy systems hinder management improvement.

That means progress on homeland security, whether generically or in building a new department, depends on getting policies, business processes and supporting systems right simultaneously.

It all matters. As Bush pointed out, we're fighting a 'cruel, heartless and relentless enemy.'

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