Civilian Executive of the Year: Cooper brings a clear sense of mission to a complex task at DHS

'I said to my wife, 'I don't know exactly how, what or when, but I'd like to be part of our response to [9-11].' '

'Homeland Security Department CIO Steve Cooper

Henrik G. de Gyor

The explosions of Sept. 11, 2001, touched off a series of events that led to the creation this year of the Department of Homeland Security.

From that same crucible came the resolve of the new agency's first CIO, Steven I. Cooper. 'I was in New York City on 9-11,' Cooper said grimly. 'And you can rephrase this however you want to, but I got pretty pissed off.

'When I got home to Corning, I said to my wife, 'I don't know exactly how, what or when, but I'd like to be part of our response to this.' '

By year's end, Cooper had resigned as CIO of Corning Inc. and moved to Washington as special assistant to the president and senior director for information integration in the White House Office of Homeland Security.

He spent much of 2002 assessing IT systems of the federal components that would make up a Homeland Security Department and planning an enterprise architecture, or what he called 'a roadmap to where we wanted to be.'

The technology to exchange data among 190,000 people from 22 federal agencies, state and local government, and law enforcement entities and private-sector enterprises is the easy part, Cooper said. 'We know how to integrate databases. There are tools, software, [Extensible Markup Language].'

But technology is only one of several layers of the project, he said.

'The process layer is a bit more complex, because we've got players and entities that previously haven't been part of the same end-to-end business process.'

Building on technologies and business processes of successful implementations such as the Federal Emergency Management Agency's disaster response Web portal, Defense Information Systems Agency networks and Dallas area emergency response networks, can provide some shortcuts.

But it's the regulatory and legal aspects of data integration that could require the most sensitive'and time-consuming'handling.

Two databases might already be authorized for similar use, but before they can be combined, the agency must submit a privacy impact assessment, Cooper said. 'We explain what we're doing, why we're doing it and what the benefit is. But that takes a little bit of time.'

Intractable time.

'I admit I badly underestimated the time that it would take'for me to learn and for us to get done what needs to get done,' Cooper said ruefully. 'Everything takes longer than what I'm used to.'

Evolution, not revolution

'That's not a value judgment,' he quickly adds. It's simply that the checks and balances of government processes promote evolution rather than revolution.

'Integrating 190,000 people in 22 agencies will take some time,' said William Cohen, former secretary of Defense and co-sponsor, as a senator, of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996.

'He's dealing with a vast bureaucracy and so many legacy systems. It's frustrating sometimes, but [integration] will happen, as long as the leadership flows from the president through the department heads to the CIOs.'

But that's not necessarily the situation at DHS, said Cooper, who has been outspoken on the subject.

'It's getting a little better,' he said, 'but the CIO is still viewed in the department as being responsible for infrastructure, not as a strategic partner in delivering mission capability. I'll get in trouble for that, but there's the real picture.'

Viewing the IT function as separate from business needs is a mistake, he said.

'What we in IT bring to the table are the different mechanisms by which business goals can be achieved,' Cooper said. 'But if we're not at the table, and if we're only able to react after a business decision has been made, how do we know we've made the best business decision?'

Misperceptions abound about what technology can and can't do, he said. Without a clear understanding of IT's capabilities, he said, 'how do you know that the approach you decided to take is built on a good foundation from a technology standpoint?'

Factoring in IT early in the decision-making process can provide alternative routes to meeting the challenges the agency faces, he said.

Those challenges abound. Down the road is integrated case management for criminal justice, identifying potential terrorists using the controversial Computer-Assisted Passenger Prescreening System II, document validation and biometric authentication.

The department also has drawn fire for not sharing enough intelligence data with the nation's 750,000 law enforcement officers. 'Secretary [Tom] Ridge said, 'Give the locals every piece of information we can possibly get into their hands on a regular basis,' ' he said. 'We're still working to bring together the multiple watch lists. We have the processes and ownerships worked out.'

The job of DHS CIO 'is a quarter the pay and three times the hours' of his last job, Cooper said. But, as feds before him have discovered, there are other perks.

'The greatest satisfaction is knowing that what we do contributes to the safety of your family and friends, my daughters, my wife, people we know and care about,' Cooper said. 'It's about 286 million Americans. That's the reason I do what I do.'

inside gcn

  • Autonomous driverless car with Head Up Display (Scharfsinn/Shutterstock.com)

    What are these 'levels' of autonomous vehicles?

Reader Comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group