When is a cold not necessarily a cold? When two agencies are sharing information about patients. In one set of records, the word "cold" might refer to a head cold, and in another, it might reflect influenza or even a patient's mood.
It's a seemingly harmless discrepancy, but a misinterpretation can be serious when epidemiologists are trying to pinpoint the spread of disease at a national level or monitor health-care trends.
The government thinks it has a cure—not for the cold—but for such potential miscommunications: the Federal Enterprise Architecture and the E-Government initiatives. With the FEA now more than two years in the making, Bush administration officials say the effort is simplifying the way agencies work together, standardizing business processes and identifying redundancies in underlying technology. In turn, the Office of Management and Budget hopes the efficiencies will help agencies use information technology to bump up the public's ability to interact with the government electronically.
All of this looks good on paper, but that's where much of it remains (or stowed away in online documents). That's not surprising given the complexity of the task: The FEA initiative involves 96 executive branch agencies, plus a host of agencies from the states, tribal governments and U.S. territories, all creating multilayered blueprints of their systems frameworks and business processes.
"This year we move from the drawing board and initial blueprints toward implementation and delivering results," is how the government's chief architect, Richard R. Burk, put it in a cover memo to the annual FEA action plan issued this spring.
It's Burk's contention that the use of enterprise architectures can transform agencies. He sees it as a job for his shop at OMB to make agencies understand that possibility.
"To do this, we will fully integrate the FEA into the existing policy and budget decision processes and demonstrate the value of enterprise architectures in helping federal agencies become high-performing organizations," he noted in his memo.
But achieving transformation won't be easy. The Government Accountability Office reported in May of last year that 76 of the 96 agencies had not established a solid foundation for effective architecture management. More dire still, 24 of them actually took a step backward, GAO concluded.
There are some notable exceptions. The Health and Human Services Department, for instance, has been updating the IT infrastructure of its Indian Health Service.
Specifically, the department and IHS have begun working together on the Electronic Health Record program to create an online physician order entry system and on providing access to medical literature across 400 Indian Health Service locations. Early this year, seven IHS hospitals and clinics began beta-testing the order entry system.
Separately, the service is participating in the Consolidated Health Informatics E-Government initiative to standardize the terminology that federal health agencies use in patient records—so, to get back to the earlier example, the term "cold" means the same thing in every instance.
This is not to say IHS lacks technical savvy. NASA announced in April that it would use IHS' Resource and Patient Management System, a suite of more than 60 applications, including the beta Electronic Health Record module, as the basis for the space agency's health-care management system. But IHS, like other agencies, has its own methods of capturing and reporting data, which makes sharing it difficult.
There are other standouts. GAO has lauded the Housing and Urban Development Department for EA progress. Among HUD's accomplishments: identifying a collection of more than 40 databases that had been built or bought higgledy-piggledy over 20 years by its Office of Single Family Housing and that cost roughly $60 million a year to maintain.
GAO had chastised HUD because many of the systems were redundant and unable to share data. Of the 40 applications, for instance, 17 were related to loan insurance and nine to monitoring activities. What's more, 10 were stovepipes and required that HUD re-enter data in other systems.
Now, the department is integrating the systems to create a single end-to-end database for Single Family Housing programs.
Saving money through EA, however, does not come cheaply. HUD figures it will spend nearly $11 million to complete its EA transformation. In addition, it will need $5.8 million each year to maintain the effort, it has told GAO. Of course, HUD's projections are a relative bargain when compared to those of the Army, whose EA initiative is by far the costliest.
By November 2003, the Army had spent $247.8 million and estimated it would dole out $318.7 million more to complete its effort, plus spend $35.6 million annually to maintain it.
All told, the 96 agencies had spent nearly $600 million, anticipated spending $805.3 million more to complete their EA work and estimated they would need $194.2 million a year to maintain it.
Despite the costs, the improvements in the long run will be worth it, according to Lisa Schlosser, HUD's CIO. She says the department has already made tangible gains. The EA framework let it launch a Web site two years ago that lenders visit to check homebuyers' creditworthiness, for instance.
"It's helped us reduce the risk of federal loans by a few billion dollars," she says.
Next up, Schlosser says, is to open the site to the public so citizens can check the status of loan applications.
The Big Picture
While Single Family Housing has seen the most progress, the efforts reflect HUD's broader work to look at all programs, merge common efforts, identify supporting systems and consolidate technology investments where it makes sense.
"We're in the process of realigning our investment portfolio based on our lines of business. The traditional way of plotting out lines of investment is to use the stovepipe method," tying a budget line item to a specific IT program or project, Schlosser says. "Now, we group similar projects, such as loan processing, together."
HUD has also been saving money by outsourcing IT projects to other agencies, which is easier now given the FEA and the ability of agencies to use their architecture blueprints to identify similar processes in other parts of the government, she says.
"Our strategy is to outsource our non-core business technology systems and focus on core business," Schlosser says.
For instance, the Agriculture Department's National Finance Center now runs pay and personnel applications for HUD, and the Treasury Department manages its human resources processing. These efforts mesh with OMB's broader plan to create shared-services centers under its Lines of Business consolidation program.
Lastly, HUD, working with Agriculture and the Veterans Affairs Department, is crafting a one-stop real estate Web site, Homesale.gov, that will list all government-owned single-family houses for sale.
HUD wants to make sure no eligible home buyers are left out in the cold.