Technology Upgrade Urgency

February 7, 2005
Drew Ladner and Daniel B. Prieto

The Washington Times

It was widely reported recently the 3-year-old, $500 million development of a new computer system to help FBI agents share counterterrorism information is going so poorly significant portions may have to be scrapped. While the Washington powers that be, from Congress to the FBI director, have been quick to blame bureaucratic ineptitude, their critique misses the point.

The federal information technology (IT) problems run much deeper, and Congress and executive agency heads share the blame. So long as Washington treats technology management as an afterthought — rather than integral to good policymaking — the much-touted recently enacted intelligence and information-sharing reforms are unlikely to succeed.

Two of the September 11, 2001, hijackers were already in CIA databases, but that information was never shared with Federal Aviation Administration computer systems.

Three years later, lousy computer systems remain, needlessly increasing the risk of another September 11-style attack. The FBI's most recent failure is the tip of the iceberg. A recent report by the Justice Department's inspector general says U.S. border systems check entrants' fingerprints against a database containing only a tiny fraction of relevant FBI data.

A comprehensive watch list with basic information on terror suspects is still not available in real time to law enforcement, airline and border officials trying to protect us. Name-matching software of government systems is dangerously inadequate.

Why can't Washington get IT right? The problem is not antiquated technology; it's antiquated technology management. In the 1990s, the private sector transformed itself by learning how to deploy advanced technology strategically. Yet too many in government still view IT as something best left to lab technicians in white coats watching over back-room mainframes: obscure and purely administrative work divorced from policymaking and far less important.

In fact, many of Washington's biggest IT problems, including database integration and intelligent search algorithms, can be solved readily and cost-effectively with commercially available technologies. But this is possible only if policymakers and IT officials work together across bureaucratic boundaries.

The policy-technology disconnect is well illustrated by disagreement between senior administration officials on the causes for continued IT missteps. Richard Falkenrath, former White House deputy homeland security adviser, has argued that federal information-sharing problems have been fixed at a policy level and that any future "failure of information-sharing in the U.S. government, [will] be due to malfeasance or incompetence, not scrupulous observance of policy."

In contrast, Karen Evans, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) official managing the interagency task force on information-sharing has argued that "The reasons [government computer systems] are not interconnected has nothing to do with technology. ... It is policies and business processes."

Recent reforms requiring chief information officer (CIO) positions in agencies have helped bridge the divide. But only 11 of the 24 largest agencies' CIOs report directly to agency heads, most CIOs lack real budget authority and few are consulted in policy formulation. Worse, IT projects are often sustained less because they are effective than just to maintain budget dollars — politics trumps performance.

Washington needs to wake up and recognize bad technology management can kill good policy. IT reforms are needed if significant post-September 11 reforms are to succeed.

First, agency heads and senior executives must be individually accountable and face real consequences if technology fails to deliver. Further, CIOs must be given authority and made full partners in the policy process.

Second, counterterror IT management must be more transparent. OMB should publicly state clear goals and milestones for September 11-related IT projects and withhold funds of programs failing to meet those requirements. OMB should keep the president and Congress fully apprised of progress and problems.

Third, the government should reform personnel and procurement regulations.

Reforms should provide broader hiring and firing flexibility on critical IT programs, favor IT projects that pay fixed prices for fixed deliverables, and insist contractors be compensated not for widgets they build but for how well the widgets perform.

Finally, to keep Washington honest as it attempts to reform itself, the president should commission a task force of the best and brightest technology executives, academics, programmers and managers from around the country to help fix our most serious counterterror IT problems.

A high-profile presidential initiative would focus national attention, raise the public-relations cost of failure, and provide decisive leadership to suspend political, bureaucratic and contracting business-as-usual approaches.

In the wake of September 11, 2001, doing technology badly costs not just dollars but lives. Decreeing new information-sharing policy while ignoring the IT issues that determine how the information is shared might hide but won't fix the problem.

To get IT right, our policy wonks and technology geeks must work together and dramatically shake up how Washington deals with technology. This should be an urgent priority for the president, new Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

The time is now, before the next Mohamed Atta shows up at the border or the airline check-in counter.

Drew Ladner is former chief information officer of the U.S. Treasury Department. He chaired and served on many U.S. interagency intelligence technology bodies, and has had a career as a technology executive and entrepreneur. Daniel B. Prieto is research director of the Homeland Security Partnership Initiative at Harvard University's Belfer Center. A former technology executive and investment banker, he recently worked for the House Select Committee on Homeland Security.

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