Of Google, gadgets and government CIOs

In a second-floor ballroom at the Las Vegas Convention Center, just feet from where companies such as eBay and ESPN touted their latest whiz-bang features, government executives and contractors discussed the importance of interoperable communications, health IT adoption and federal chief information officers.

'It is essential that in understanding and using and analyzing information ' we have accountable information officers with authority to implement the kind of discipline necessary to make sure that our information is effective,' said former attorney general John Ashcroft. During his tenure at the Justice Department, Ashcroft said, it was important that Justice CIO Vance Hitch reported directly to him and had budget authority to implement the systems necessary for integrating the department's information sources.

Ashcroft said the Justice Department 'had so many avenues in which information was used''including more than 40 FBI systems that couldn't communicate with each other'that it had to create the Justice Intelligence Coordinating Council in 2004 to integrate information.

Ashcroft spoke last week to attendees of the first annual CES Government conference, sponsored by ICG Government, FedSources and the Consumer Electronics Association.

In later comments, Veterans Affairs Department CIO Robert McFarland said he was looking forward to having control over his department's IT budget. Last fall, Congress finally gave full budget authority to the VA CIO. Prior to the change, the CIO controlled less than 3 percent of VA's total IT budget.

Conference attendees also discussed the growing importance of health IT. Claude Allen, domestic policy adviser to the While House and former deputy secretary of the Health and Human Service Department, said health IT could eventually lower health care costs by 10 percent. But, he said, government efforts to create standards and encourage adoption will be critical.

'Many large institutions have resources to invest in health IT strategically,' Allen said. 'But 13.5 percent adoption for small physician practices is the norm.' He said roughly half of large practices have adopted electronic health records. 'This adoption gap has the potential to shift the market in favor of larger players who can afford these technologies.'

Allen said the work of the American Health Information Community will be important to spurring widespread adoption of health IT.

The CES Government conference coincided with this year's Consumer Electronics Show, the country's largest trade show. Organizers said they got the idea to hold government-specific meetings at CES because of the influence consumer technologies eventually have on government operations.

Despite the important issues discussed, the conference was not without its share of levity. During his talk, Ashcroft was interrupted twice in a span of minutes by a broadcast alert indicating a false alarm in the convention center. After the second, identical announcement Ashcroft quipped, 'You know this is one of the largest of all the world's convention facilities, but I've never heard an echo that was that delayed.'

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