How Homeland Security Budgets Technology

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Online exclusive: The Department of Homeland Security is poised to have an information technology budget nearing $2.1 billion. What will the money be spent on?

The new Department of Homeland Security will probably have a 2003 information technology budget of $2.1 billion—the fourth largest IT budget among civilian agencies in the U.S. government, behind only the Department of Treasury, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the Department of Transportation.

But it's not clear yet where those megabucks will be spent—or even when.

The department, which is being cobbled together from such pieces of national affairs as the Custom Service, Coast Guard and Immigration and Naturalization Service, is charged with combating terrorism on U.S. soil.

Yet, at this point, there's no way for the 22 agencies that will comprise the new cabinet-level department to collate the disparate terrorists-to-watch lists that are maintained by multiple federal agencies. Neither can they pull in sensitive data from state and local agencies to produce a coherent method of tracking potential terrorists wherever they might stand inside American shores. Those capabilities will require new systems and software.

And construction of those systems looks to be a year or more away. Homeland Security is trying to draw up by year's end an architecture the various Homeland Security agencies can use to build systems for sharing information, but even by its own account, it will need through 2004 to fully knit those systems into a seamless collection of information processing machinery.

Homeland Security faces a significant integration challenge. Many of the component agencies that will form the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been around for decades, if not more than a century. Each of the 22 agencies has built up its own computer systems, which run a gamut of hardware and software—everything from IBM mainframes, to Unix servers, to Window PCs.

"We have a challenge here," says Homeland Security Chief Information Officer Steven Cooper.

Not only must Cooper and his team wrestle with a technology challenge, they also must deal with political realities. Congress and the President have yet to sign off formally on the creation of the Department of Homeland Security and approve its proposed $37.5 billion budget. The House has passed a Homeland Security bill, but the Senate is still reviewing legislation and a presidential sign-off could take months. For now, the agency continues to operate as the President's Office of Homeland Security.

"If Congress doesn't fund or doesn't fulfill the request that we've made, it will cause us to work much more slowly and may jeopardize our ability to have all of the data that we'd like to have while making key decisions," Cooper says. Until it becomes an official arm of the government, the Office of Homeland Security has neither the staff nor the funding to move quickly on implementing a broad information-sharing architecture.

With all the obstacle in its path, Homeland Security faces "an uphill struggle" to blend all the agencies into a cohesive whole, says Dan Heinmeier, president of the Government Electronics and Information Technology Association, a trade association of government IT vendors. "They're going to have to learn about and acquire new applications and at the same time look at their legacy systems and figure out how to incrementally improve them to get the job done. It's a complicated problem to solve."

And the Bush administration wants to get right. The Office of Management and Budget has put a moratorium on major technology spending at the agencies that will make up DHS pending a review of component agencies' investment plans. OMB says it wants to eliminate redundant systems and ensure interoperability between agency computer and communications equipment.

Under the direction of OMB Director Mitchell Daniels, a review board, consisting of member agency chief financial officers, chief information officers, and procurement and human resource officials, was created and is readying an evaluation process to begin approving technology purchases. Just as critical, a subgroup of CIOs was formed to study agency infrastructures and compatibility issues. DHS, Cooper says, is working on a common information technology platform, which will be aligned with the government's Federal Enterprise Architecture. That is a blueprint for implementing new computer and communication systems that encompass everything from initiating and defining to implementing and maintaining computer systems.

"Homeland Security IT Spending"

Cooper says DHS agency CIOs are in the process of comparing computing architectures to determine points of integration and that the agencies have, "on a very small basis," started the process of tying together their data systems.

Cooper and his team hope to draw up a complete architecture by year's end, which DHS agencies will begin to build on in 2003. The plan is to deploy new data sharing and analysis systems in the first half of next year and implement support and office systems in the second half of the year. Continued systems deployment and systems integration work, the Office of Homeland Security says, will continue through 2004.

DHS equipment procurement plans are still sketchy, but Homeland Security is likely to use a combination of high-end servers, including supercomputers, sophisticated data analysis tools, and secured Internet communications to facilitate information dissemination.

So far, the Office of Management and Budget has approved three homeland security-related pilot projects to test information sharing about terrorism. The projects are expected to last between three and six months.

The projects include: tying together online the disparate terrorist watch lists managed by multiple federal departments, which will create a virtual master list that law enforcement and intelligence agencies can tap; developing an Internet portal for homeland security that will give users at all levels of government access to information about the programs and plans of the department; and creating a multi-state system that will revolve around the sharing and analysis of sensitive law enforcement information among federal, state and local agencies.

To promote the sharing of information, Cooper's department is trying to develop an overall standard for keeping track of data. The most likely solution, he said, is "some kind" of eXtensible Markup Language technology. XML is an expanded version of the Web's HyperText Markup Language, with more tags to identify and define elements on a page, which helps organizations integrate their legacy applications into Internet-based systems.

"There's just so much out there that we need to keep constantly pressing for the best possible tools to allow users to get only that which they need and nothing more, and not spend a lot of time searching through volumes and volumes of data to get a few documents." So says Paul Wallner, a Washington consultant who spent 40 years in Department of Defense Intelligence and who was the head of the infrastructure division of the Department of Defense's Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance department before he retired.

Buying those tools, however, is going to add up. Input, a research house that specializes in the government's use of computer and communications systems, pegged the Homeland Security office's equipment budget at $2.1 billion, which it said was a conservative estimate. "It doesn't account for all the agencies and it doesn't take into account integration spending," says Payton Smith, who manages Input's public sector market analysis service.

But, for now, there can't be any DHS spending or data sharing because there isn't even a Department of Homeland Security, yet.

—With additional reporting by Lance Ulanoff

This article was originally published on 2002-09-09
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