Small Victories

By Elizabeth Wasserman  |  Posted 08-19-2002 Print Email

Small Victories

Mark Forman "In federal government today, we have at least 6,600 systems, because we have 6,600 forms that have to be put online. Somebody else told me it's really 26,000. So we may have 6,600 forms and 26,000 computer systems. That's a lot. We've only got 32 lines of business. How do you go from that to tens of thousands of systems, 33 million-plus Web pages and 23,000-plus Web sites? We've got a redundancy problem. There's just no doubt about it."
Mark Forman, White House director, IT and e-government; and director, federal CIO Council

Are any of Stenbit's efforts bearing fruit? Just ask Maj. Alan Dye, stationed some 1,500 miles from Washington, D.C., at Fort Hood, a U.S. Army base in central Texas. It used to take Dye weeks, if not months, to apply for a promotion: He'd have to write a letter to the Army personnel office, request a copy of his records, then wait days or weeks to review his data on microfiche file and reader. This time around, though, all Dye had to do was to log onto his PC, download his file from the Army's new $31.9 million intranet portal, Army Knowledge Online, and print it out. The whole process took seconds. The portal, a key component of the Army Knowledge Management project, is available to 1.2 million active and retired service personnel. It offers Web-based e-mail, news, banking information and some 8,000 links to classified and unclassified data, depending on one's log-in code. And the payoffs in savings so far have been enormous. The Army Personnel Command, for example, has been able to cut the number of network servers from more than 4,000 to just 43, saving the Army $28 million, says Cathy Michaliga, AKM director.

And that's not all. Now, servicemen and women are told via the Web when they need a dental checkup to qualify for deployment. Fast access to the health status of soldiers is a must for commanders in the event of a defense crisis: Each soldier must first have a clean bill of health. During the Gulf War, it could take up to a week for a commander to clear each recruit; AKO crunches that time to no more than one hour.

The Air Force is also developing its own intranet, consolidating hundreds of disparate legacy systems at 110 bases—from San Antonio to Okinawa—into one master Web access point. That enables pilots to, say, update the repair status of their jet fighters, check the latest weather forecasts and find directions to the local base commissary. The Navy and the Marines, meanwhile, are building an intranet to replace 200 different shore-based networks by 2008. Under a unique outsourcing contract for $6.9 billion awarded in October, the Navy Marine Corps Intranet will be owned and operated by Electronic Data Systems Corp. and will be leased back by the Navy in a way that requires it to pay for intranet service just as it does electricity.

The NMCI project, Stenbit says, is being closely watched by other government agencies as a potential model for government outsourcing. Says Navy Deputy CIO David Wennergren: "What I want to buy is performance rather than infrastructure." Even the GAO's Hite applauds the project's potential. "It's like a Sears Roebuck catalog," he says. "You order the service you need and pay as you go."

Down the road in Stenbit's push for what he calls a more "network-centric" organization is a plan—not unlike those in business everywhere—to get the Pentagon's back-office technologies to inform front-office strategies—in this case, the commanders and the generals. One of those projects involves using satellite communications to coordinate airborne intelligence and reconnaissance with troops on the ground or at sea. The system, according to Brig. Gen. Stephen Ferrell, the DoD's Space Architect, would use space lasers to zap information between commanders-in-chief and the different military services.

Wiring that up not only helps execute military strategy, it also helps keep track of who is where. Stenbit's Defense Integrated Military Human Resources System would replace 88 different personnel and payroll systems and consolidate the tracking of military personnel from basic training to retirement under one system. In Afghanistan, for example, each time troops were deployed, the joint task force commander had trouble keeping the troop records straight. Under each commander were a mix of people from the Marine Corps, Army, Navy and Air Force. But each of those branches had a different personnel system and needed different IT personnel to coordinate records for payroll and in case of injury. Other agencywide projects include computer systems that secure classified communications, book travel and provide reimbursement.

Can it all work? It's a lot to keep track of, and IT—whether in the Pentagon or throughout government—suffers a credibility problem on Capitol Hill: Some estimate the number of redundant computer systems in operation by the federal government, as a whole, at 6,600; others estimate closer to 26,000, according to Mark Forman, the Bush Administration's IT czar. There's also a stormy history of federal IT projects gone awry. The "poster child" of wasted IT effort: the Internal Revenue Service's Tax Systems Modernization program, which cost more than $3 billion before being killed in 1997.

But one thing has become clear in the past 12 months, at least at the Pentagon: Fixing IT systems isn't just a low-priority peacetime mantra left over from the closing days of the Cold War, when the enemy was more predictable and low-tech, and the battleground, geographically isolated. Now the threat is digital as well as land-based, triggering the need for fundamental change.

In a speech to students at National Defense University in January, Rumsfeld told students worried about another terrorist attack on American soil that all the high-tech weapons in the world won't transform the armed services "unless we also transform the way we think, the way we train, the way we exercise and the way we fight." And, he might have added, the way the Pentagon does business.

Elizabeth Wasserman is a Washington, D.C.-based writer. Formerly, she was Washington Bureau Chief for The Industry Standard.


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