• United States
by Michael Hardy

White House official: CIOs key to homeland security

Dec 10, 20024 mins

Private-sector chief information officers (CIO) will play a key role in the work of the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to Lee Holcomb, director of infrastructure at the White House Office of Homeland Security.

WASHINGTON – Private-sector chief information officers (CIO) will play a key role in the work of the new U.S. Department of Homeland Security, according to Lee Holcomb, director of infrastructure at the White House Office of Homeland Security.

Holcomb, who delivered the keynote address here Tuesday at the Homeland Security 2002 conference, heads the IT side of the effort to merge 22 federal agencies into the one new department.

About 80% of the country’s “critical infrastructure” — industries including transportation, healthcare, power supply and financial services — lies in the corporate world, Holcomb said. His office is assessing the technologies that are used most commonly among the agencies.

“The first thing we’re doing with CIOs is trying to identify where are those common technologies, and where we can, seek enterprise licenses,” so that the department is using the same systems, he said. The department purchased a 250,000-seat license for Autonomy Corp. knowledge management software after finding that it was popular among companies, he added.

“The other thing we’re looking to CIOs to do is advise us on best practices,” he said. Holcomb and other federal CIOs involved in the creation of Homeland Security spent the summer consulting with companies including Hewlett-Packard, Exxon Mobil, Raytheon and others that have recently merged with other companies and faced big IT integration projects.

“One of the common themes is that they all had a fairly large integration team when dealing with mergers,” he said. “And communication is essential. The things all of them put in place by day one had to do with communication.”

To that end, Holcomb intends to ensure that a departmentwide directory, secure e-mail and a set of informational Web portals are all operational by the new department’s first day, Jan. 25, 2003.

“On day one we’re going to have 170,000 people,” he said. The portals will answer questions for personnel making the transition.

Holcomb’s goal is to develop an “enterprise architecture” for the department, a continuation of work he did while serving as CIO of NASA from 1997 until earlier this year. As Holcomb sees it, a successful integration of systems starts with understanding the business needs of the entity — in this case, the Department of Homeland Security — and then finding the right technologies to address those needs.

“Our goal is to provide the right information to the right people all of the time,” he said. “The technological piece may be the easiest [part].”

Integrating processes that were not initially intended to serve one another, and people coming from different backgrounds and cultures, is more difficult, another lesson Holcomb learned from the corporate CIOs.

However, the technological challenges are formidable, he said. His task is to take 22 separate information systems and merge them into one, or possibly two if the agency decides to maintain separate military and civil systems. The job challenges him to create a single “trusted database of record” starting with inconsistent information stored in different locations. He has to worry about first responders, such as local fire and police departments, that use 1970s communications technology. And like corporate CIOs everywhere, he has to plan a migration from legacy computer systems to a unified infrastructure.

“It’s a daunting task,” he said.

Holcomb inspires confidence, though. Skip Crane, a conference attendee and program manager with a nonprofit company called Advanced Technology Institute in Charleston, S.C., who worked with Holcomb on making federal Web sites accessible to the blind, said Holcomb brings a strong streak of creativity to his work and a keen ability to prioritize.

“He understands that people need to continue to work on [what can’t be done], but the energy needs to go into making sure we’re doing the priority things,” said Crane.

The private sector businesses, many of them still reeling in the wake of the 2001 terror attacks, are listening more closely than they might to the government’s plea for cooperation, said Larry Wentz, a conference-goer here and management consultant with Suss Consulting, based in Jenkintown, Pa.

“Where the private sector works well with the government is in responding to critical situations, like the World Trade Center,” he said, after hearing Holcomb’s keynote. “They would be willing to look at additional security, meaning investments they would need to make, because of a self-interest motivated by broader interests.”