Government agencies still stumped by info sharing

It has been nine months since terrorists used commercial airplanes to attack the US, and still federal agencies are struggling to figure out how to best share information so the country is not caught unaware again.

          It has been nine months since terrorists used commercial airplanes to attack the US, and still federal agencies are struggling to figure out how to best share information so the country is not caught unaware again.

          Meanwhile, IT vendors are complaining that their technology proposals to help foster data sharing among agencies are falling on deaf ears, because the government acknowledges it really doesn't know what it needs.

          Following President George W Bush's proposal made last week to create a Department of Homeland Security that would coordinate terrorism intelligence and have more authority than the current Office of Homeland Security, a US House of Representatives' subcommittee held a hearing here to assess barriers that block government information sharing.

          Key to fighting terrorism is allowing information to flow between federal agencies as well as with state and local governments, says Tom Davis, a Virginia Republican and chairman of the Subcommittee on Technology and Procurement Policy.

          "More than ever before, our success is dependent upon collecting, analysing, and appropriately sharing information that exists in databases, transactions, and other data points," Davis says. "Effective use of accurate information from divergent sources is critical to our success in this fight" against terrorism.

          Achieving that goal is easier said than done, according to witnesses who testified at the hearing.

          Among the witnesses were officials from federal agencies such as the US Federal Bureau of Investigation and the US Immigration and Naturalisation Service (INS) that are privy to terrorism-related information. They told the subcommittee that the data-sharing problem doesn't stem from a lack of interest in getting help from technology companies, but from the absence of a clear set of requirements that would dictate the agencies' technology needs.

          Even the best technology won't help if agencies can't pinpoint which problems it should aim to solve, says George Bohlinger, executive associate commissioner for management with INS. Agencies need to first establish data-sharing goals and guidelines, then bring technology into the picture to help implement the guidelines and achieve the goals, he says.

          Technology companies are growing frustrated because they don't know how to access the federal government with their proposals, says Representative Jane Harman, a California Democrat who joined the hearing after a meeting with Bush and other lawmakers to discuss the creation of the new Department of Homeland Security.

          Even companies that manage to get their proposals heard by the federal government run into additional roadblocks, says Ronald Sugar, president and chief operating officer of defense and industrial manufacturer Northrop Grumman . Agencies expect companies to assume what Sugar referred to as "unreasonable liability" if something goes wrong with their products, therefore burdening the private sector with immense risk.

          "Capping liability would clearly be a step in the right direction," says Kevin Fitzgerald, senior vice president of government, education, and healthcare at Oracle.

          The government is experiencing its own set of frustrations, says Randall Yim, managing director of the national preparedness team with the US General Accounting Office. This organisation is Congress' investigative arm charged with improving the performance and accountability of the federal government.

          "We are trying to chose technology through a procurement process, but we don't have requirements in place," Yim says. In addition, many technology companies that pitch the agencies don't have integrated offerings themselves; instead they promote piecemeal solutions to specific problems. "They expect us to know how to integrate," he says.

          "The issue is requirements, no doubt about it," echoed the INS' Bohlinger. "We need to be able to tell the people in the private sector exactly what our needs are."

          Davis suggested that one way to determine requirements is to consult with the private sector. Bohlinger agreed, adding "we don't know what the universe is out there." Agencies should solicit the help of IT companies to refine requirements and understand how to apply technology, Bohlinger says.

          These requirements should initially come from the people in the agencies who actually do the work related to gathering and sharing information, in coordination with their chief information officers, says Mark Forman, associate director of information technology and e-government with the White House Office of Management and Budget.

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More about BushFederal Bureau of InvestigationINSNorthrop GrummanOffice of Management and BudgetOracleTechnologyUS Federal Bureau of Investigation

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