Information-sharing has to get priority focus

By Thomas E. McNamara
Friday, January 1, 2010

The partisan finger-pointing that followed last week's attempted airplane bombing is the wrong response to governmental failures to share information. Since Congress enacted the recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission five years ago, administrations of both parties have worked to fundamentally change the way federal agencies and offices manage information. These efforts have received bipartisan support but have unfortunately been marked by limited success.

Neither the George W. Bush nor the Obama administrations nor Congress has followed its pronouncements of strong support for change with the high-priority attention required to reform how national security information is processed. I served in both administrations as program manager for the Information Sharing Environment -- an office created by the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 -- and I received enough support to avoid failure, but not enough to ensure success.

After the Sept. 11 attacks, the Bush administration, with bipartisan support, built a solid foundation for an Information Sharing Environment (ISE) -- as called for by the 2004 act, which required the president to name a program manager for the ISE and to establish a council to advise the president and the program manager on the development of information-sharing procedures and coordination among federal agencies. But fostering an environment in which timely information moves to those who need it to do their jobs requires consistent, high-level attention. That is what forces the bureaucracy to transform its traditional "need to know" restrictions into "responsibility to provide" practices. We built the base for a new system but lacked high-level support to institutionalize new practices.

The White House failed to push for full implementation or funding of its own directives. Most agencies, for example, never established required privacy guidelines for information-sharing, and the Office of Management and Budget provided no new funding for agency reform efforts. Meanwhile, other priorities pushed aside information-sharing. In its final year, the Bush White House focused on its "legacy victory," asserting that reform had been accomplished. But change was only beginning, and the momentum of the first years was lost.

The Obama administration announced a new impetus for information-sharing, but here, too, reality has not matched rhetoric. After nearly a year in office, the administration has yet to fill key information management positions. The program manager position is vacant and has been downgraded in status. The White House pledged to stand up the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board, a panel required in the 2004 legislation, yet it remains dormant.

While work continues at a modest pace, the bureaucracy knows how to respond to signals that this is not a priority -- keep on the old course. The administration and Congress agree that we cannot return to old ways of managing information. But without sustained, prioritized attention and allocation of new resources, true change will remain merely an objective.

The major challenges to improving information-sharing are changing the cultures, policies and business processes of the agencies. These challenges are exemplified in the differing agency missions; overlapping "turf"; resource shortfalls; and bureaucratic inertia. For five years, the leadership has been inconsistent and insufficient. To make substantial progress, three initiatives are needed:

First, integrating divergent efforts requires top-down management by a single national executive. The administration should consolidate within the Executive Office of the President a single "Information Management Executive" with budget certification authority to require agencies to build the infrastructure for a fully functioning, coordinated system. That individual should coordinate activity in all information arenas (health, transportation, national security and law enforcement) at the federal, state, local and private levels.

Second, Congress should put aside its jurisdictional rigidities (and territorial "rice bowl" attitudes) and take a holistic view of information management. So far, both houses have left these matters to their Homeland Security committees, which have done good work but are restricted to one department. Congress needs a special committee or task force in each chamber with oversight across committee and agency lines to deal with these government-wide issues.

Third, the president must stress that sporadic Cabinet-level involvement is unacceptable. All agency heads must drive the bureaucracy forward. Requiring periodic reports of progress and failings to the president should actually produce change.

Progress has been made, but inadequate support has been given to this essential reform. While the rest of the nation marches into 21st-century information management, the federal government cannot remain mired in 20th-century practices.

The writer served as program manager for the Information Sharing Environment from 2006 until August 2009. Previously he was an assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration and a special assistant to President George H.W. Bush.


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