by Todd Datz

Department of Homeland Security’s Efforts Promise to Be the Biggest Change Management Job of All Time

Dec 01, 200216 mins
IT Leadership


I propose the most extensive reorganization of the federal government since the 1940s by creating a new Department of Homeland Security. For the first time, we would have a single department whose primary mission is to secure our homeland.

-President George W. Bush, from his Homeland Security proposal to Congress, June 2002

The September 11 attacks unleashed a wave of antiterrorist actions by the federal government. Perhaps the most significant was President Bush’s call in June to form a massive new Department of Homeland Security (DHS) out of the many existing federal agencies that touch on aspects of national security. The House of Representatives took up the new legislation and quickly passed its version of the bill last summer. In the Senate, however, the bill became mired in a party squabble over the president’s request for power to hire and fire employees in the new department, with democrats unwilling to eliminate civil service protections. As winter loomed, debate continued in the Senate, with hopes that a compromise could be reached.

Yet the transformation of the federal government is already under way. President Bush created the Office of Homeland Security (OHS), a precursor to the larger department, by executive order in October 2001. Its skeleton crew of executives began scoping out the massive task of reorganizing the goovernment, on a scale not see since President Truman created the Department of Defense following World War II. Uncertain when the new department will come into being or even which agencies it will encompass, the leaders of OHS nonetheless will play a key role in coordinating the efforts of different arms of the federal government, as well as state and local governments, the private sector and the American people, in the fight against terrorism.

Making this mega-entity work, on the other hand, could be as difficult as trying to locate Osama bin Laden. Critics of the new department question whether bringing so many entities and people together into a huge, new bureaucracy is necessary. They wonder how willingly intelligence agencies such as the FBI and CIA, which remain outside DHS but are critical to its success, will share information. They worry that the reorganization will be too big an undertaking.

The success of the proposed department?and the security of the nation?will, in large part, hinge on IT. “Information technology is extremely important,” says Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.). “It’s the thread that will weave the new department together.”

Steve Cooper, the CIO and senior director for information integration at OHS, faces the daunting task of integrating the hundreds of systems in the 22 agencies and programs that are currently slated to make up DHS. An even taller order, though, might be getting the 170,000 workers in those agencies to look past their different agendas, histories, cultures and processes and act as members of a holistic enterprise, whether they sit in the Coast Guard or the Customs Service or Nuclear Incident Response units.

Cooper, formerly the CIO at Corning, says the closest analogy to these Herculean labors is mergers and acquisitions in the private sector, but that likeness only goes so far. “We’ve not found a true equivalent where you have a merger, acquisition and a startup all coming together at the same time,” he says. Yet Cooper is confident that the government can overcome this three-headed monster?because the stakes are too high for him to display any mood other than confidence. Self-assurance is one thing, however. To pull off this massive reorganization and integration may take years, which, in terrorist time, could be too late.

Integration of a Nation

In July, President Bush released the National Strategy for Homeland Security, a product of eight months of consultations with a wide range of people, including governors, mayors, members of Congress, airline pilots, firefighters and business leaders. It defines the mission of the new department, lays out the goals and creates a plan of action. Underscoring the critical role that IT plays in the effort, two of the four foundations of the strategy are science and technology, and information sharing and systems (the others are law and international cooperation).

The White House’s strategy guides the work Cooper and Jim Flyzik are doing. Cooper left Corning in March to join OHS as a special assistant to President Bush; Flyzik works in tandem with Cooper as a senior adviser to Assistant to the President for Homeland Security Tom Ridge. Flyzik is on detail from the Department of the Treasury, where he is CIO. The two seem to go together like Hope and Crosby, though it remains to be seen how this movie will end. On a typical sun-splashed day in the nation’s capital, in a bland conference area formed by grey cubicle walls, the pair?each wearing a suit, Cooper adding a spark of sartorial flair with bright red suspenders?discuss their mission, goals and current state of IT planning.

Meeting the challenges of technological integration and employee collaboration means tackling four issues, they say: designing a new architecture for the entire enterprise, modernizing the many legacy systems, establishing a workable model for knowledge sharing, and bridging the cultural chasms among different agencies that existed long before 9/11. Here’s how Cooper and Flyzik are going about it all.

The Architecture. Cooper and Flyzik are focusing first on developing an enterprise architecture for homeland security. Getting the architecture right, Cooper says, “is absolutely core?a critical success factor?to enable us to make the right kinds of decisions and recommendations around IT investments for DHS and for the appropriate federal agencies.”

The master architecture starts by identifying the business processes in the merging agencies; technology discussions come later. “We want to take a look at the functional areas that comprise homeland security: prevention, protection, detection, warning, incident management, response, recovery, public liaison communications?then activities like R&D and IT,” says Cooper. “We then want to identify the processes that comprise those functional areas. We then want to identify the information that is most consumed by those processes and produced by those processes.” Only after that extended exercise will they begin to look at IT enablement of the business processes.

Along with a concurrent effort at the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), this is the first time anyone has taken a holistic look at the federal government’s business processes, notes Flyzik, who is also vice chair of the federal CIO Council. But streamlining processes promises to be a huge headache. Different agencies, even different departments within agencies, have developed different processes over the years. “A background check within one group in the Department of Commerce is different from another group in Commerce, let alone across agencies,” says Avi Hoffer, chairman and vice president of strategic alliances at Metastorm, a Severna Park, Md.-based software vendor with several federal government clients. “There’s no consistency of business process.”

To begin honing in on functional processes in crucial areas, Flyzik and Cooper have established three working groups?border security, first responder and weapons of mass destruction?made up of federal CIOs. To take just one of those, the border security group, chaired by Flyzik, is mapping out all the processes involved from the time a foreign national applies for a visa outside the United States, travels to this country and then departs. “There are about 11 agencies involved in that end-to-end process,” says Cooper. He’s not yet ready to judge whether there’s too many cooks in the kitchen. But, he says, “We do know that…every time you make an organizational handoff, you introduce potential time delays, non-value-added work, additional cost and perhaps errors.”

If and when DHS gets the green light, the two leaders have identified some top priorities for the agency. One is consolidating the 58 criminal and terrorist “watch” lists; another is establishing a single portal for DHS.

Cooper thinks DHS can build out about 80 percent of the architecture in 18 months, and complete the IT implementation plan in three to five years. He stresses that the phased, incremental-type approach he’s taking will ensure that tangible value is delivered along the way. “I don’t want people to think that, Oh my God, they’re going to just hole up and hibernate and do all kinds of techy stuff before we have any value. Absolutely not,” he says.

The Legacy Systems. The architecture plan will serve as a map for Cooper and his team. But this is no greenfield exercise. To create a department capable of securing the nation, they’ll have to integrate hundreds of legacy systems. The first step is an assessment of the 22 agencies’ infrastructures, which itself is a hugely complex task. There are 22 personnel and seven payroll systems among the agencies, for example. You can bet that a chunk of those will disappear in DHS.

Cooper and Flyzik are also building an inventory of the current enterprise licenses, with an eye on streamlining that number. The number of applications that deal with homeland security is around 500, according to Flyzik. Some may be dropped if they’re redundant; the rest will need to work together. And new ones will likely be added too.

In July, the feds showed they were serious about integration when the OMB created a supergroup of federal CIOs to pave the way for DHS’s effort. The IT Investment Review Group?made up of Cooper, Flyzik and the CIOs of the Coast Guard, Customs, Federal Emergency Management Agency, Immigration and Naturalization Service, Justice Department, State Department, and the Transportation Security Administration?was charged with reviewing government IT investments to identify redundant spending and decide which assets could form the basis for integration efforts.

John Koskinen, city administrator for the District of Columbia and President Clinton’s Y2K czar, thinks that the Y2K exercise has put the government in a much better position to pull off integration. “Everyone has a much better inventory of the systems they’re running and why they’re running them,” he says.

But the reality of the integration challenge is this: There’s a ton of legacy stuff in those agencies, and connecting it could be messier than a Jack Welch divorce proceeding. “A lot [of systems] will be old, built out of technology that doesn’t exist commercially anymore,” says Raymond Wells, the former CTO and CFO of Alabama who is now director for strategic transformations in the application and integration middleware division for Armonk, N.Y.-based IBM. He cites the FBI, one of the agencies that will be sharing information with DHS, which has to send photos by overnight mail because its e-mail system can’t send them digitally.

Cooper and Flyzik plan to overcome the legacy hurdle with middleware, EAI tools and the Holy Grail of integration, Web services. Yet there’s a lot of disagreement in the tech world over when Web services will be ready for prime time. Yes, the major software vendors are betting the integration farm on Web services, but the latest and greatest of the overhyped technologies still needs to grow up a little. Much work remains to be done on security and the reliability of transactions, in particular.

Barriers As Big As a Continent

A more daunting challenge than actually connecting the agencies in DHS may well be how workers deal with the humongous amounts of data flowing into their systems. In addition to the information streaming into people’s desktops from within DHS, there’s another huge spigot?the FBI, CIA and other intelligence agencies?that will be bursting the bandwidth with gig upon gig of data. Then there are the state governments, localities and private companies, which will be sharing information in areas such as law enforcement and intelligence with DHS and vice versa. “It may be the largest volume of information ever,” says Rock Regan, CIO of Connecticut and president of the National Association of State CIOs. Add the fact that much of the data will be dirty, redundant and useless, and you’ve got an analysis problem the likes of which has never been seen.

The Knowledge Glut. “The difference between data and information is the Achilles’ heel” of DHS, says David Colton, vice president for strategic initiatives at the Arlington, Va.-based Information Technology Association of America (ITAA). “The really important thing will be to sift through the mounds of crap to figure out what’s important…. If you get all the operating systems working together but don’t turn data into information, you’ve still failed.”

“It’s a fascinating intellectual challenge,” says Koskinen, who notes that intelligence agencies have long wrestled with this issue?for example, filtering data intercepts. “The infrastructure issues are challenging, but you can deal with that. Much harder is, What’s my system for sorting and filtering and analyzing all that data? If [DHS] has reams of data and no one can figure out what it all means…you’re talking about people’s lives all over the world,” he says.

The fact that the intelligence agencies remain outside DHS makes information sharing that much more hazy. The FBI, CIA, National Security Agency and others will still be the main gatherers of intelligence information. The plan is that they will pass on intelligence to DHS. That’s not a good model in Colton’s eyes. “If [DHS is] receiving finished analytical reports, they’re a passive customer. That doesn’t work; it doesn’t solve DHS’s needs. When the intelligence community is reformed, DHS needs to become a much more dynamic part of it. Absent that change, I’m not sure the department will fully succeed,” he says.

Cooper and Flyzik believe the concept of “capture once, reuse many” (capturing data only one time to eliminate redundancy) will help them confront the specter of too much information. As part of their architecture work, they’re identifying and labeling “databases of record,” which will then be designated as official sources of data. Other databases would be cast aside; new ones could be created. “We recognize it’s probably going to take a few years to get where we want to be fully,” says Cooper.

In many ways, this is the mother of all knowledge management projects. And there isn’t exactly a font of KM successes in the private sector to use as a model. It’s hard to find people with broad experience in labeling, organizing and retrieving information, notes Woody Hall, CIO of the Customs Service. He also cautions that DHS will need to be careful in its mission to provide information to people anywhere at any time, so that the end result isn’t a push kind of architecture, in which people would be inundated with data and information. “The challenge is to sift and screen it,” he says.

Flyzik is adamant that DHS workers won’t suffer from information overload. “If you get the architecture right, the net result is you will get the right information to the right people all of the time,” he says.

The Culture Clash. Putting anything together?companies (think AOL Time Warner), people (think Liz Taylor and anybody)?can be difficult. Cobbling together 22 entities would send even the most experienced change management gurus rushing for the beta blockers. It’s making these disparate cultures work together, particularly when it comes to information sharing, that may well be the hardest piece of the homeland security puzzle. “You’re bringing in 22 different families with 22 family histories,” says ITAA’s Colton. “Whoever takes the secretary job has a huge managerial challenge to get the disparate corporate cultures to integrate. It may take four to five years to do.”

The federal government is a vast collection of agencies and departments whose employees have never had much reason or incentive to think of themselves as part of a larger enterprise. Their interactions in many cases are minimal. And many of the agencies have long histories. Customs, for example, dates back to 1789. “We have our own flag, our own uniform. Same thing with the Coast Guard,” Hall says. He raises the issue of whether those entities would keep their own uniforms or adopt new, standard uniforms.

Uniforms may sound like a minor issue, but when it comes to mergers, what’s trivial to one person can be a deal-breaker to another. Multiply that type of decision a thousand or ten thousand times and you get a clearer picture of the mammoth task that lies ahead. IBM’s Wells says flatly, “Overcoming all the barriers created by an accumulation of a thousand years of organizational existence will be the toughest challenge.”

What Lies in the Balance

With so many technological and change management hurdles to overcome, it would not be surprising if DHS achieved only partial success in its mission or even failed outright. Yet there are two reasons why DHS might surprise the skeptics. The first is that reorganization of the federal government is a good idea. “I would suggest the world has changed considerably since the 1940s, especially in the use of IT products,” Flyzik says. “I think it’s long overdue that somebody take a look at the government from a functional view instead of an agency-by-agency view. And that’s what’s being done here.” His voice picks up as he asks, rhetorically, How many agencies at the federal, state and local level are involved with border crossings? More than 40, he announces, which means that if you’re an importer or exporter, you might be required to fill out papers for more than 40 different entities. “I think what the president and governor [Ridge] are doing here is absolutely right on, and in the end, we’ll not only have a more secure country, we’ll have a more efficient government.”

The second, and more important, reason that this department can succeed is its mission: to save lives and protect property. That will be incentive enough for many people to discard their agency hats for new, larger-size homeland security headgear. Sept. 11 singed a permanent memory in America’s psyche, and that includes the DHS workers who patrol the border, respond to disasters and analyze intelligence day in and day out. Their commitment to defend the nation will, at a minimum, give the new department a fighting chance.