IT managers have a long road ahead
- By Jason Miller
- Jul 23, 2003
Rep. Adam Putnam, the Hill's new IT overseer
J. Adam Fenster
As the youngest member of Congress, Adam Putnam's ascension to the chairmanship of the Government Reform Subcommittee on IT, Information Policy, Intergovernmental Relations and the Census was less of a surprise than some might assume. The Florida Republican says he earned the job because he is one of the few lawmakers who grew up with a computer on his desk.
Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee, 'probably saw me as a nice fit in taking on some of the leading-edge issues because of how comfortable I am with technology,' Putnam said.
Although Putnam is at ease with technology and uses it extensively in his office, he is quick to note that he has much to learn, especially when it comes to how way agencies use technology and apply IT policy.
During his first eight weeks as subcommittee chairman, Putnam held seven hearings about IT topics, such as e-government initiatives and cybersecurity. The reason? To learn a lot quickly, he said.
Putnam was elected to Congress in November 2000 after spending four years in the Florida state legislature. He also is a member of the Agriculture, Budget and Joint Economic committees.
Putnam has a bachelor's degree in food and resource economics from the University of Florida.
GCN staff writer Jason Miller interviewed Putnam at his congressional office. GCN: In some ways, your ascension to the chairmanship of the subcommittee overseeing most federal IT programs was unexpected. How did it happen?
PUTNAM: Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), chairman of the Government Reform Committee, is such a leader in e-government and procurement, everyone else is sort of a distant second.
It wasn't until late in the last Congress and beginning of this Congress that it began to look like the eligibility for a subcommittee would trickle down to my seniority level. It was the chairman's decision. I took it as a particular honor that he was giving me the subcommittee that he had.
I have always taken the position that as a young person'and the youngest member of Congress'there are certain issues that are generational in nature, long-term issues that transcend the next budget or election cycle or fiscal year. Technology is one of those issues.
I think Davis probably saw it as a nice fit that you would have a younger member who is comfortable with technology taking on these issues.GCN: How technologically adept are you?
PUTNAM: By the standards of your readers, I'm probably as adept as a techie. But by congressional standards, I'm on the leading edge or certainly in the top percentile in terms of comfort and ease with online activities, whether it is shopping, communicating or integrating use of technology in my office.
We have basically a paper-free constituent mail system. We scan everything and don't keep three years worth of letters.
We have made it a priority in the office to use technology where we can. We are trying to wean constituents off franked mail to electronic newsletters. We are designing a Web site that has that in mind. We are gathering a database of e-mail messages that is as close to being as good as one with physical addresses as it can be.
Our scanning technology has reduced errors and the number of letters that can fall through the cracks of someone's desk and get lost. We have made substantial investments in technology in the office.
There is something of an obligation to be on the cutting edge and use the best practices and best technologies that are out there.GCN: What have the first few months been like? How about the learning curve?
PUTNAM: We still face a learning curve, and it has been a steep curve for me.
E-government is probably the area where I've had to start from a dead stop. That was an area that was Davis' bailiwick, and everyone deferred to him. It was not an area that I had been as in tune with before my chairmanship.
I had some exposure to cybersecurity issues when I participated on national security hearings about terrorism before Sept. 11 .
Every day you try to learn more, and I'm very fortunate to have a great staff with a super background in the private sector working on these issues. They do their best to bring me up to speed.GCN: What is your initial impression of federal IT?
PUTNAM: We have a long way to go. Mark Forman, the Office of Management and Budget's administrator of e-government and IT, is doing an outstanding job in bringing a vision to federal IT policy and an overarching plan to create some efficiencies and some cost savings.
The recurring theme is that technology is there, but the greatest obstacle continues to be cultural reluctance to make good information security and policy.
We have made some improvements to better serve citizens. Some organizations, like the Labor Department, have made it a priority. They have put people in place at high levels that will keep the focus on it, and they have been successful.
There are other examples where folks are still behind and have a lot to learn from the folks at the top. One of our worst offenders, in terms of scrapping expensive programs halfway into it, is the Defense Department.
I think the president has brought a very important focus on management across the board, including e-government. Some in the tech community may be a bit surprised that the cowboy from Midland, Texas, is the guy who wants to drive the bureaucracy kicking and screaming into the 21st century. But ironically, he is the guy who apparently is going to do it. There have been some important success stories, but we have a long way to go.GCN: How will the subcommittee make sure the government achieves success on its 25 Quicksilver projects?
PUTNAM: We certainly will do our part to keep their feet to the fire and help Mark Forman succeed. We will come out with report cards.
We still are reviewing the Federal Information Security Management Act report, and we will be active in the oversight capacity to make sure all 25 are moving along.GCN: What will your subcommittee grade agencies on?
PUTNAM: How well agencies are securing their information and how effectively they are implementing the President's Management Agenda. We are picking it up from where retired Rep. Steve Horn left off.GCN: How will the subcommittee work with the House Appropriations Committee to change the way cross-agency projects are funded?
PUTNAM: We will work with them from the perspective of having their funding models comport with our findings from oversight. We can't have them funding new stovepipe systems when we are working to eliminate stovepipes.
From the standpoint of having them as our stick and/or carrot, there has to be better communication so Appropriations has an understanding of what our committee has found with regard to the agencies' requests for new systems, expansion of existing systems and the like.
The appropriators operate under such a compressed time schedule, and they have so many things to consider, it is difficult for them to get all the information they need. I think it is our responsibility to provide them with information and recommendations of where there is potential for savings and where there is room for better investment.GCN: Where do you see a potential need for technology legislation?
PUTNAN: We are looking at three areas in particular: information security, data mining and geospatial data. GCN: What about data mining, particularly the development project at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency?
PUTNAM: Our hearings have been pretty balanced in terms of being genuine fact-finding, information-seeking hearings. I haven't come in with any preconceived notions. I think the Senate legislated before they had any hearings on it, and I think that is probably not the best way to go.
It is a complicated issue because there are many benefits to that technology, but there are substantial consequences as well. We are reviewing it to see if there are natural break points where you could draw some type of policy line that allows law enforcement, the Homeland Security Department and the Defense Department to do what they do while protecting civil rights.