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GAO Urges More IT Spending Authority For Homeland Security CIO

The government's investigative arm says its research shows such control is vital for successful systems integration.

Department of Homeland Security CIO Steve Cooper should be given more authority and control over departmental IT spending, according to the General Accounting office, the investigative arm of Congress.

In a report issued Friday and made public Monday, the GAO contends that its research on successful private- and public-sector organizations and the experiences at other federal agencies shows that such control is important for effective systems integration.

Homeland Security is managing and integrating some 700 mission-support, administrative, and infrastructure IT systems that functioned within the 22 agencies that made up the department when it came into existence in March 2003. In the current fiscal year, the department requested $4.1 billion to manage these systems and acquire and develop new ones--the third-largest IT budget in the federal government.

"Until its IT strategic framework is fully defined and effectively implemented, DHS runs the risk that the component agencies' ongoing investments--collectively costing billions of dollars in fiscal year 2004--will need to be reworked in the future, so that they can be effectively integrated and provide maximum value across DHS," Randolph Hite, GAO's director of IT architecture and systems issues, wrote to Rep. Don Young, R.-Alaska, who chairs the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure. The committee provides oversight on a number of matters that pertain to Homeland Security, including transportation security; the Coast Guard, a Homeland Security agency; and emergency management.

The department is developing an IT systems-integration strategy through its efforts to implement an IT strategic plan, an enterprise architecture, and IT-capital-planning and investment-control processes. According to GAO, the department says these three elements--which are essential parts of a framework for achieving effective systems integration--are areas of focus and planned to be fully in place before year's end. Cooper, the GAO report says, attributed limited progress on the systems-integration framework to date to insufficient staffing, higher-priority demands such as establishing a departmentwide E-mail system, and near-term high-payoff opportunities such as consolidating wireless-communication capabilities.

In the interim, the GAO report says, the department and its agencies have taken steps intended to promote the alignment of its components' ongoing and planned IT investments with the department's strategic direction. The steps include subjecting major investments to review and approval by various departmental investment review boards, continuing to have component agencies follow the IT strategic-management structures and processes that they had before the department was formed, and having meetings between component staff responsible for IT investments and staff working on the department's IT strategic-management framework.

GAO said it corroborated the department's use of this approach through analysis of IT investments being pursued by three departmental agencies, which the agencies indicated were representative of their general approach to aligning investments with the department's evolving strategic direction. "While these steps have merit, they do not provide adequate assurance of strategic alignment across the department," Hite said.

For instance, one step--agencies following the IT strategic-management structures and processes they had before the department was formed--simply continues the various approaches that produced the diverse systems that the department inherited, GAO said. And having meetings between agencies' staff responsible for IT investments and staff working on the department's IT strategic-management framework relies too heavily on oral communication about complex IT strategic issues that aren't yet fully defined. That, GAO concluded, increases the chances of misunderstanding and missed opportunities for integration.

Homeland Security, in a written response to GAO, didn't specifically agree or disagree with the agency's conclusions, but provided information on its IT challenges and priorities that mirror those offered by the congressional investigators.

GAO recommended that Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge limit the department's investment in IT systems until a departmental IT strategic management framework is sufficiently defined and Cooper is given sufficient authority to effectively implement it.

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