Hill, OMB spar over IT freeze

'We think OMB's initial approach is an appropriate one, picking the infrastructure and business systems first.'

'GAO's Joel Willemssen

Lawmakers last week said the freeze on IT projects at proposed Homeland Security Department agencies has hurt chances for establishing a departmental systems architecture and possibly harmed contractors and systems.

The Office of Management and Budget failed to satisfy members of the House Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy, who said they want to know when the IT freeze will end. As passage of the homeland defense bill becomes less and less likely this year, lawmakers expressed concern about agencies having to continue delays on systems initiatives.

Rep. Jim Turner (D-Texas) asked how much money OMB has held up. Mark Forman, OMB associate director for IT and e-government, said it was somewhere between $1.5 billion and $2 billion. He said the systems reviews instituted by OMB will save $100 million to $200 million.

'The subcommittee would like to understand whether this type of review will continue within the new department,' said Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), the subcommittee's chairman. He questioned whether the new department could even open its doors without an operational architecture in place.

Forman defended the freeze, saying it let the OMB-sponsored Homeland Security IT Investment Review Group take inventory of existing systems and decide which ones can work together.

He tried to ease Davis' concern that the new department would be unable to open for business without an architecture. 'This has to be an iterative approach, leveraging components in and out as they are defined,' Forman said.

The first iteration'developing the business architecture by late spring or early summer of next year'depends on funding, he said.

'We had requested some money in a supplemental appropriation that was not approved for some of this work,' he said.

Three steps

The second iteration will be development of the data architecture, and the final piece will be the application architecture.

Subcommittee members said the freeze could seriously affect contractors.

Agencies slated to join the proposed department were ordered to stop work in July on all IT infrastructure projects valued at $500,000 or more. No new procurements, including task or delivery orders, can proceed without the OK of the investment review group. The group has allowed projects at the Transportation Security Administration and Coast Guard to begin.

The effects of the freeze will be minimal, said Joel Willemssen, managing director for IT issues at the General Accounting Office. Only new development is affected, not existing systems 'in a steady state using operations and maintenance funding,' he said.

But Davis argued that the freeze will harm mission-critical efforts such as new systems being designed under the Enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act of 2002.

Forman said OMB has asked the Immigration and Naturalization Service and State, Transportation and Treasury departments to submit business cases so it can help combine their architectures for inclusion in the Entry-Exit System.

'Everything is on schedule for meeting those deadlines,' he said.

The Entry-Exit System is supposed to be functional at airports and seaports by December of next year, and at 50 land ports in 2004.

Contracts in jeopardy?

Sandra Bates, commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Technology Service, said the IT freeze does not affect her Nov. 19 deadline for providing TSA with workspace, furniture and supplies at 422 airports, 150 offices and 21 air marshal offices. 'There's no jeopardy of the contracts,' she said.

Willemssen said the freeze also did not apply to obligated funds for development or acquisition. And agencies can always request expedited review by OMB's investment group, he added.

Patrick Schambach, CIO for TSA, said he could have moved ahead faster had OMB not frozen his projects. 'I've had to insist on very quick decision-making by the review group,' Schambach said.

But Willemssen defended the OMB approach. 'We think OMB's initial approach is an appropriate one, picking the infrastructure and business systems first,' he said. It gives the HSD components time to think about 'what's out there, what direction to go. In many cases, I think you're going to see things drop off.'

S.W. 'Woody' Hall Jr., the Customs Service's CIO, said the freeze has made him rethink his new e-mail system. 'We're going to align with the rest' of the proposed department, he said.
'The reviews should not stand in the way of modernization projects that will result in significant savings,' said Renato DiPentima, spokesman for the IT Association of America and president of SRA Consulting and Systems Integration of Fairfax, Va.

'You have to go after the infrastructure' first, DiPentima said'for example, a common e-mail and record-keeping system. Rushing through development of the basic architecture would be a mistake, he said, because 'most of the coordination will wrap about the ability to share data.'

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