Shawn McCarthy | Civilian agencies could use a DISA of their own

Could federal civilian agencies benefit from having access to an organization similar to the Defense Information Systems Agency? At least one former federal chief information officer thinks so.

If the idea catches on, it could significantly change the way agencies develop, design, procure or lease their information systems.

Although one of DISA's main missions is to provide command-and-control and general information technology capabilities to the Defense Department, the agency has several other missions. For example, it helps coordinate procurement of hardware, software and IT services; provides system and application hosting, including some types of cloud computing; and provides help with systems engineering or setting design specifications. The agency also helps to enable information sharing and the development of — or migration to — network-centric services.

To get the same list of services, civilian agencies have to travel multiple routes. For example, the General Services Administration can help with procurements and some types of hosted services. But if an agency wants to improve information sharing, it might instead look to the National Institute of Standards and Technology, or the CIO Council.

Meanwhile, systems engineering is often provided by a specific bureau within an agency or through a specific agency contract with an external vendor, which might not adhere to governmentwide enterprise architecture rules.

A civilian group patterned after DISA could help provide a single interface for all of these services while helping with things such as enterprise standardization and improved pricing. Right now, as civilian agencies move more energetically toward cloud computing, many contracts could potentially appear across many agencies with many different prices. That makes it tougher for IT bureaus to apply economies of scale or share data in a standard way.

"Why are 42 or so different procurements now looking at clouds?" asked Dan Mintz, former Transportation Department CIO. He thinks that cloud computing could soon be offered in a way that's similar to what we now see for telecommunication services, in which any federal agency can access a handful of major telcom contracts. Mintz is pitching his idea that the civilian side of government might benefit from a DISA-style organization. To him, the focus is really on provisioning — coordinating the way civilian agencies acquire and provide their computing services, data centers and, eventually, cloud services.

To see the potential benefit, Mintz suggests taking a look at the Rapid Access Computing Environment currently offered by DISA. This sort of rapid deployment capability on the civilian side could be very beneficial.

Mintz now is chief technology officer for Computer Sciences Corp.'s civil and health services group, which means his company could see a direct benefit if the government increased its focus on provisioned services. But that doesn't make his idea a bad one. Questions about IT transitions always come down to measuring return on investment — both cost-cutting and improving citizen services. Provisioned services bureaus, limited as they are, already have a decent track record for both. And a central resource such as DISA, which could help to coordinate the effort, is certainly not a bad thing.

The big question is: Who should supply DISA functionality with a civilian flavor? Some possibilities include:

  • GSA, which would have to expand its current role to take those additional management tasks.
  • DISA, which would have to greatly expand its current role to be able to assist civilian agencies.
  • A new federal agency or centralized organization, which would have to be carefully planned and executed.

All of this needs to be answered before such a transition could occur, and such a change could take years. However, the idea of a civilian-side information systems agency — CISA? — is intriguing.

If it does catch on, I'd like to suggest the name CivISA. You heard it here first.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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