Ridge Sees IT Challenges for Homeland Security

Former Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge says problems in IT are obstacles to the department fulfilling its mission.
Lack of unified IT processes is a major roadblock to efficiency in the Department of Homeland Security, former Homeland Security secretary Tom Ridge told InformationWeek in an interview this week.

The department has made some progress, replacing various legacy systems and building new, unified systems across the organization, from human resources to procurement. Still, complete IT unification is a challenge that won't go away anytime soon, he says.

Ridge says that part of the problem is the federal government's decentralized approach to IT management and spending. Indeed, both an internal Homeland Security and Government Accountability Office reports last year concluded that the lack of control and oversight that then-Homeland Security CIO, Steve Cooper was allowed to exercise had led to IT inefficiencies within the department, including a lack of security compliance. But Ridge says he thinks change may and should soon take place. "I would hope that somebody would empower the CIO to have control of all the finances for all the technology," he says. The department's current CIO is Scott Charbo, who took over after Ridge and Cooper left earlier this year.

When former Pennsylvania governor Ridge formed the department in January 2003, he had to cobble together a brand new organization from more than 20 agencies with hundreds of separate IT systems. "It required a whole new way of thinking, a 21st Century response to a 21st Century problem," he says. "This reorganization presented the biggest change management proposition of all time."

Such a huge transformation would certainly take time and patience, and people would have to be prepared to change entire systems. "That's not just technological," Ridge says. "That's cultural." Managers needed to look deeply into the purpose of Homeland Security and what information technology was needed to realize that purpose.

Planning will be key to achieving success, Ridge says. This may seem like common sense, but, Ridge notes that within the government, "For many years technology was acquired before the mission was determined. The first role of the CIO environment is 'what is the mission?'"

Federal law requires CIOs report directly to departmental secretaries, but the Bush administration never required this of Homeland Security. The CIO instead reports to the undersecretary for management, three levels below the top. Ridge says then-CIO Cooper, who resigned in April, had access whenever he needed it, so he knew the mission and what IT meant to its execution. However, Cooper was close with Ridge. Future CIOs might not be so lucky.

Regardless of how well government CIOs understand department-wide strategies, funding remains a challenge. "The reporting problem wasn't as important as who had the purse strings," Ridge says. Although there is some CIO oversight into the process, Homeland Security IT budgeting procedures are decentralized. Internal agency unit CIOs have control over their own IT budgets. Ridge says he was forced to do this because he didn't want the legislature to remove IT spending from larger initiatives. "We worried that no matter how persuasive we would be," he says, "If we gave money directly to the CIO, Congress would cut it."

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