Steve Cooper, who as CIO at the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) must untangle the mess of disparate networks and data standards of the 22 federal agencies that merged to form the DHS, said last week that a unified IT infrastructure will be completed within 18 to 24 months.
"We're moving toward one Department of Homeland Security," Cooper said at the E-Gov conference here. "We want to unify and simplify the environment as rapidly as we can."
Cooper said he plans to rely heavily on commercial applications to accomplish what is no simple task. Federal agencies have historically operated autonomously, and their IT systems weren't designed to interoperate with one another.
According to Lee Holcomb, chief technology officer at the DHS, a key hurdle to be overcome is the various agencies' differing business rules, which dictate how data is described, collected and accessed.
Holcomb's job is to devise a plan to make data held by each agency accessible by other agencies under the DHS umbrella. Data mart and data warehousing options are currently under consideration.
DHS is also examining best approaches for providing remote users with wireless access to department systems. The department also plans to increase the deployment of portable devices within the next six to nine months.
As agency integration efforts take shape, department IT officials expect to post more job advertisements in the months ahead.
Although position requirements haven't yet been fully identified, there are many technologists who have "a desire to become part of the Department of Homeland Security mission," said Pat Schambach, CIO for the Transportation Security Administration, which is now an agency of the DHS.
Getting a job at the agency requires a security clearance, but officials say that hasn't been an obstacle — getting an initial security clearance can be accomplished in as little as two weeks. Higher security clearance levels, however, can take months.
Meanwhile, emerging technologies appear to be playing a growing role at federal agencies. For instance, Cooper said, agencies are working with commercial vendors to find ways to utilise unstructured data, such as data that isn't located in a relational database and can't be easily manipulated and analysed.
The CIO Council, a body made up of all the CIOs in the federal government, has in fact formed a committee to examine emerging technologies.
"We want the government to be at the forefront (of) leveraging technology," said US Air Force CIO John Gilligan. "We want to be scanning the horizon and be an early adopter. We need to convey to industry what our technology needs are."
Craig Luigart, CTO at the US Department of Education, disputed the stereotype that the government lags behind the private sector in the adoption of IT.
Many agencies were early adopters of new technologies, such as voice over IP and virtual private networks, and they are now seeing returns on those investments, he noted.
"I never liked being No. 2," Luigart said.