Time for a Fresh Federal Infrastructure?

By Sean Gallagher Print this article Print

In pursuit of a new standard of national security, the country's first CEO president should recognize it's time to re-engineer the government.

"What's good for America is good for General Motors, and vice versa," GM president Charles "Engine Charlie" Wilson told Congress in 1953, after he was nominated to be Secretary of Defense. That may have been a controversial position, but a corollary has proven itself more true: The problems of government information technology are the same as those faced by business—only bigger.

Because Ford Motor Company and tire maker Bridgestone/Firestone didn't have an integrated view of data from the field, people died, lawsuits ensued and the companies went into a tailspin; because agencies of the federal government didn't have an integrated view of data, the country was left exposed to terrorist attacks that killed thousands and changed the course of history.

The data-sharing problems that handicapped U.S. law enforcement and security agencies prior to Sept. 11 weren't just a systems integration problem—they were an organizational problem. The creation of a Department of Homeland Security is a golden opportunity to fix that, and change the way the agencies involved in security run their information systems. But if it's just an organization-chart change, the opportunity will be squandered.

Maybe what the country's first CEO president needs to avoid the pitfalls of the past is what private-sector colleagues often rely on to help steer a reorganization: the advice of an independent consultant. Considering how distracted the president's been lately, I decided to call one for him: James Champy, chairman of Perot Systems' consulting practice.

Champy co-authored Reengineering the Corporation with Michael Hammer in 1993. His latest book, X-Engineering the Corporation, takes on the problem of managing processes across organizational boundaries.

I asked Champy what advice he'd offer Homeland Security chief Tom Ridge on handling the systems integration problems arising from the merger of the Coast Guard, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Secret Service and other agencies into the Homeland Security organization. Champy's answer: Start over from scratch. "Trying to integrate [the old systems] isn't going to work," he says.

Champy contends it will be much harder to patch together the existing systems at these agencies—much less integrate them with the FBI or other "outsiders"—than to just start out fresh. "And extending their life is just costing more and more," he says.

The federal government as a whole spent only 12% of its $45 billion for information technology in fiscal 2002 on upgrading systems or developing new ones, according to the Office of Management and Budget. Even a small cut in the remaining spending would be more than enough to give Homeland Security fresh infrastructure, Champy contends.

To build an agency that works, Champy suggests adherence to three principles. The first is transparency: Each agency needs to be able to peer effortlessly into each others' systems. Next is standardization. "Every agency thinks it's special," says Champy. "That's bull. Agencies have to accept a certain level of standardization—it will be good for them."

The third principle is what Champy calls harmonization. "We usually look to fix things at the interface, where what we should do is go deep into processes," he says. Rather than just sharing data, agencies should work together at a low level—both in terms of systems and people. Wal-Mart, for instance, requires suppliers not just to connect to its information network, but to maintain the inventory in its stores.

All this is not going to be easy. Despite efforts since Sept. 11, intramural politics to date has been at odds with the idea of adopting common ways of doing business. "That [kind of openness] is countercultural in government," says Champy. Agencies, he says, tend by nature to hoard and compartmentalize information. In effect, they are better at creating obstacles to getting to information than creating ways to share it.

This article was originally published on 2002-09-08
Sean Gallagher is editor of Ziff Davis Internet's enterprise verticals group. Previously, Gallagher was technology editor for Baseline, before joining Ziff Davis, he was editorial director of Fawcette Technical Publications' enterprise developer publications group, and the Labs managing editor of CMP's InformationWeek. A former naval officer and former systems integrator, Gallagher lives and works in Baltimore, Maryland.
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