Information Silos Stand In The Way Of Interoperability

May 29, 2009 (08:05 PM EDT)

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Federal CIOs view integrating systems and processes as second in importance only to implementing stronger security, according to a recent survey. In fact, the federal CIO Council 11 years ago began developing an enterprise architecture framework, an effort that would improve information transparency, budget accuracy, and project management across business and financial systems.

So why do redundant, noninteroperable systems remain the norm in government? Many agencies insist on maintaining their independence, and those that want to open up face technical obstacles to sharing information.

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The Department of Defense is a case in point. The military branches have resisted pressure to manage their financials using services from the Defense Information Systems Agency (DISA) or the Defense Business Transformation Agency (BTA). The latter has called siloed information the DOD's biggest challenge, yet progress in modernizing the department's business systems has slowed significantly, according to the Government Accountability Office.

Defense spends $1 billion annually on 12 ERP systems that are replacing or connecting to more than 3,000 disparate financial systems. "Legacy systems tend to 'break' ERPs when they are interfaced with them," the BTA said in a recent statement. "Each external interface presents transactional error risk. As the number of interfaces increases, the probability of successful transactions decreases. The government has countless interfaces and spends millions annually to correct reconciliation errors."

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DISA CIO John Garing points to similar inefficiencies in the way military branches procure materials. "I would like the business systems to be able to share information so that if the Army has a great way of buying bolts, and a system to do it, let the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force do it, too," he says. "Expose that to the department at large." DISA is partnering with the BTA on back-end systems to enable such shared services.

A recent test program called the Defense Agencies Initiative would consolidate myriad DOD financial systems into one. The new system is set to begin rolling out to smaller Defense agencies this year, but it's unclear when it would spread department-wide.

Mandates Meet Reality
As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, all agencies are required to disclose details of their stimulus spending on, including the states involved and jobs created. Yet Jacquelyn Patillo, the Transportation Department's acting CIO, recently said this mandate would be a problem for her agency, which is to receive $58 billion in funding. The problem? At least 10 Transportation financial systems don't interact with one another.

The Treasury Department is looking to bring consistency to its financial reporting with the Governmentwide Treasury Account Symbol Adjusted Trial Balance System, which will consolidate four systems that collect agency accounting data by 2012. Working in Treasury's favor are new standard formats for consolidated financial reporting, which are due for implementation a year before that.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has room for improvement, too. The GAO says the OMB has yet to describe how agencies should create financial management systems that would "operate cohesively" for modernization efforts.

Gaps in information sharing among federal agencies came to the fore after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when it became clear that various intelligence agencies had pieces of information about the attackers but no agency had the whole picture. There has been progress since then, from multiagency information-sharing agreements to the adoption of blogs and wikis, but rifts remain.

A government-wide approach to sharing terrorism information, the Information Sharing Environment, was mandated in 2004, but it has yet to be fully developed. The ISE program manager last year found that fewer than half of agencies had adopted training programs on information-sharing processes and mandates. "The sense of urgency on information sharing has diminished since the 9/11 attacks," the Markle Foundation finds. "Old habits die hard."

John Garing, CIO, DISA
The goal is to share capabilities across the military, says DISA CIO Garing
Though mechanisms like Intellipedia are in place to share information, the GAO last year found that the Office of the Director of National Intelligence had yet to define the scope of ISE or articulate which types of information should be included. DISA's Garing says the Defense Department continues to have gaps in intelligence sharing as well.

Other data silos identified by the GAO: Electronic medical records at the DOD and the Department of Veterans Affairs aren't fully interoperable, and the Internal Revenue Service needs to get better at coordinating audit schedules with states.

Still, there are a growing number of mechanisms to share intelligence information, thanks largely to the Office of Intelligence Community Enterprise Solutions, a shared-services group under the Director of National Intelligence. Signs of progress include 830,000 pages on the Intellipedia wiki, more than 17,000 instant messaging users each day, intelligence-oriented blogs, and a rollout of Microsoft SharePoint for cross-agency collaboration.

Turf Battle
Cybersecurity is another area requiring attention. Rod Beckstrom resigned in March as director of the Department of Homeland Security's National Cybersecurity Center, complaining that the National Security Agency was encroaching on his turf. What's more, there's no organizational structure under which federal chief information security officers get together and share policy. And the U.S. Computer Emergency Readiness Team, tasked with coordinating cyberthreat responses, has trouble sharing attack data with agencies that don't have cybersecurity employees with government security clearances.

The Federal Information Systems Management Act, which regulates government cybersecurity procedures, is a step in the right direction, but agencies continue to operate largely independently. Defense agencies, for example, follow different security standards than civilian agencies. "A collection of hierarchical 'stovepipes' is easier to attack and harder to defend because security programs are not of equal strength and stovepiped defenders cannot respond well to a multiagency attack," the Center for Strategic and International Studies warned in a recent report recommending policy changes.

New legislation, White House policy, and a cybersecurity czar should help, but for now, lack of centralized leadership has hindered information sharing on vulnerabilities and led to uncertainty about government security policy. Across government, much remains to be done in opening up data silos.

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