Dec 31 2009

IT Goes Apolitical on Capitol Hill

IT lets the federal government do more, and elected officials are savvier about technology. Now the question is: Can feds and lawmakers curb their political instincts and ensure that the necessary systems work gets done?

It's intrigue. It's maneuvering within a group.
It can be downright Machiavellian. It's politics. And perhaps no one
does it better than the nation's leaders in Washington. After all,
who's better at working a back room than members of Congress?
Often, politics is simply how things get done inside the Beltway.

But that's politics, not technology, and when you're building a
strong IT backbone, it doesn't matter which party is leading the
charge or how skillful you are in the practice of politics. Either you've
done a good job of building your systems or you haven't.

The question is: How well can an inherently apolitical discipline
fare in an inherently political town? The answer may depend on
your vantage point.

Rep. Robert "Bob" Ney (R-Ohio) chairs the House
Administration Committee, which oversees the IT budgets and
plans of all other House committees. During his four years leading
the committee he has watched IT rise in prominence on the Hill.

"More representatives are becoming more interested in the
nuts and bolts of information technology," Ney says. "I'm
approached—literally, daily—by one colleague or another who
would like to discuss new technologies they have heard about
or who have questions about new systems we're integrating on
Capitol Hill.

"Clearly, up-to-date technology and
efficient information systems are critical to
the day-to-day operation of congressional
offices," Ney adds. Communicating with
constituents is at the heart of congressional
service, and IT's role in that communication
is critical, he adds.

Wielding influence over exactly how
that communication works—and over the
technology involved—is nearly irresistible.

At some point, points out John Kost, a
federal government analyst with Gartner, a
Stamford, Conn., IT research consultancy,
you can expect politicians to be political.
House members have figured out how to
wield influence over other committees by
making it known that they can throw a
monkey wrench into the works if that
committee doesn't support the politician's
interests, he says.

Ney is well aware that his committee
plays "an increasingly influential role in how
Congress operates and communicates with
the American people." But he tries to prevent
other committees' policy debates from
spilling over into his venue, he quickly adds.

No Bickering About IT

"Bipartisanship in this area in particular is
something I have been committed to since
becoming chairman in 2001," Ney says. And
it's clearly not just an election year issue. "It's
something I intend to follow throughout my
chairmanship," he adds. "Members are very
aware of the importance of new technologies
and wish to embrace them. I am dedicated
to leveraging current and new technologies
to realize the benefits of time and efficiency."

In much the same way that funding for
a program engenders opportunities to alter
the program, so IT support opens an avenue
that can affect a program's nature, according
to Gartner's Kost. "It probably will happen
that politicians will start to manipulate the
technological process," he says.

"My committee does have oversight of
the technology issues facing the House, and
we work hard to provide direction without
hindering progress in the technology
arena," Ney says. "We do this by taking a
holistic approach and leaving politics out of
any challenges presented during our quest
to move the House forward."

That is the focus maintained by John
Erickson, CIO for the House Administration
Committee. Representatives make an effort
to support IT systems that work regardless
of the technology used or who will be using
it, Erickson says, but he has no illusions
about the kind of town where he works.

"This place was built on politics before
the first brick was laid," Erickson says. "So
it's a challenge to have anything be immune
to politics." Still, he makes an effort to check
his own politics at the door.

"I try not to be too direction-oriented
and to be more steering-oriented," he
explains. "I certainly have opinions on
things, but I try not to be too 'be all, know
all, end all'; that's not my job."

According to Erickson, IT operations in
the House are a "federated system." For the
most part, each committee runs its own
business, and Erickson and his staff take on
more of a consulting role rather than being
a controlling entity.

In his four years as a committee CIO,
Erickson says that he's seen a steady march
toward improved disaster recovery planning
and secure data collection. "Great effort was
put into the preservation of data," he says.

"Now we're talking about providing
access to it. The trick with technology is to
implement it and fund it before it changes."

Here, too, politics heats up technology.
If access to information and the collection
of data seem unlikely as hot-button topics
for the Hill, just say "Patriot Act" and that
perception changes instantly. "The more
data you can collect, the more options you
have for what to do with it, and the more
debate you have over it in the public policy
arena," Gartner's Kost says.

Washington is undeniably a town
exquisitely sensitive to power, and a full
slate of sensitive IT issues makes the role of
the House Administration Committee CIO
a powerful one.

But the number and variety of IT tasks
Erickson must tackle make it easy to focus
on the technology. His to-do list includes:

• Expanding virtual private network use
for remote users

• Evaluating a range of video conferencing technologies

• Writing guidelines for placing wireless
access points

• Designing an effective—and secure—

802.11 wireless network

• Ensuring that spam filters don't block
important e-mail from constituents

• Upgrading a data network that supports
all 435 congressional district offices.

Remembering September 11

Each day brings a new issue to tackle,
Erickson says. "When a virus warning goes
out, when things go wrong, people look to
us for help."

Sometimes the calls are on an issue that
draws everyone's attention, such as the
September 11 terrorist attacks.

"As I'm sure many people recall," says
Ney, "on that terrible day, it was virtually
impossible to use a cell phone. I happened
to be one of the few members to have a
BlackBerry wireless e-mail device on Capitol
Hill that day, and for a period of time, it was
the only way I was able to communicate
with my staff and others."

One lesson learned that day, Erickson
says, was that members of Congress need to
be able to communicate effectively in any
situation, and that need was not being met.

Ney's committee acted quickly to
authorize the purchase of a BlackBerry for
each member of Congress.

"In a matter of just a few months, we saw
an increase in BlackBerries on Capitol Hill
from just a few hundred to several thousand,"
Erickson reports.

Improvement in communications is an
ongoing, bipartisan issue, Ney says. "I am
committed to working with members of
both parties to continue upgrading the
technology, and I'll listen to anyone who has
a good idea to help us in that regard."

But technology as a hot-button issue—

like politics—seems here to stay. Though
some individuals may embrace the spirit of
bipartisanship, it's unlikely that IT will ever
be completely neutral ground.

Erickson's response is pragmatic. "The
politics will be what the politics are," he

"IT staffers will have to manage what
they can and manage it well."