One of Molly O’Neill’s top priorities is making government more collaborative and more responsive to the public, so she’s looking at how Web 2.0 technologies can help. If government agencies don’t learn to use these tools, she says, “we’re going to be left behind; we’re going to be on Page 18 of the search engines.” In the coming months, O’Neill hopes to improve access to data — both for the public and for internal users — and to lead the Environmental Protection Agency toward delivering more services that the public wants. And she’s planning to ask the taxpayers what they want and need through a national dialogue.
FedTech Editor in Chief Lee Copeland spoke with O’Neill about her goals and initiatives.
FedTech: You’ve been at EPA for little more than a year now, so I wondered whether there were goals that you set for yourself and how you think you did against those goals.
O’Neill: The two primary things I’m focusing on are improving access to data and maturing the organization. As someone who’s been a user of EPA’s resources for years, someone who understands technology and the explosion of the Web and what happened, I really wanted to improve access to the environment we’re working in, because it’s ever-growing, ever-changing. So I really want to focus on that, especially since I have a technology background.
The second area I want to concentrate on is maturing the organization. The Office of Environmental Information itself is relatively young at EPA — less than 10 years old — so it sort of got put together in pieces. Now we have to set the organization up to where it needs to be in the future: becoming a real leader, moving away from building and more toward services, as well as leading the rest of the agency a little bit more away from building large databases and into more services-based stuff.
On improving access, it’s really focusing not on what EPA wants to build in terms of what we think people want or how they expect information to be delivered, but we need to go and ask them. We’ve made some improvements in search capabilities on our Web site this year, and we’ll continue to make those. The other thing we need to do is to go ask our customers, both internally and externally, how they want to access our information. What information are they looking for, and how do they want it delivered to them? We’re talking about how we’re going to be doing this and planning to actually kick off our national dialogue shortly for about an eight-month period.
FedTech: That’s probably going to be daunting because in any large organization, the rate of change can sometimes be much slower than one would expect because you have so many stakeholders and so many systems that you’ll have to modify.
O’Neill: That’s why I’m trying to do incremental things. When we engage in this national dialogue where we’re going to be asking people what they want us to do, at the end of that we’ll have a game plan for the organization to follow for the next couple of years — a long-term strategy. In the meantime, we’re going to be delivering some changes incrementally, and as we hear good ideas, we’ll implement them. We can identify some milestones along the way of things we can actually demonstrate where we’re making improvements.
FedTech: Can you tell us about one or two of these incremental projects that have come up that you can implement in a short amount of time and also have a big impact?
O’Neill: Let me give you an example. When we talk about improving access, one of the things that we’ve been moving toward are portals of information. For instance, we have environmental indicators all over our Web site, and now we’re building the first indicators’ portal, which brings all of our indicator efforts together — the gateway is what we’re calling it. It’s a single access point to bring all of our information together. People who are interested in that particular area will be able to find that information a lot easier. It doesn’t have to wait until we write this big old plan for how we’re going to organize all of the agency’s resources, but yet it’s a really important thing that the agency does because there’s a huge number of people wanting to know what those environmental indicators are. So that’s an example of an incremental milestone out there, or an incremental goal.
FedTech: One of the things that you’ve mentioned is making it easier to find information. Are you talking about searches within your Web properties for external customers or are you talking about searches through engines like Google?
O’Neill: Internally, for now. For instance, a couple of months ago we put in a search mechanism that allows us to do folders. If someone searches for contaminants of water, it’s going to ask, “Did you mean in the water program or are you looking at the wastewater program?” The other feature we’re launching is a way to identify searched-for items even if they’re misspelled. In Google, when you type something and maybe you spelled it wrong or it was slightly off, Google will ask, for example, “Do you mean trichloroethylene?” This is important at EPA because there are so many chemicals, and people are interested in chemical or contaminant concerns, so we’re going to have a “Did you mean?” feature in our own search capabilities on epa.gov.
And the next thing that we’re looking to improve is a search mechanism that will not only provide documents, but get the data out as well.
FedTech: The eight-month study you were talking about, is that for consumers of EPA data?
O’Neill: It’s a dialogue that will end in a road map of where we need to go. So I’m calling it “the national dialogue for improving access to information.” We’re still finalizing the details, but we’re planning to reach out to many different stakeholders, both internally and externally, and that’ll include the public in different ways.
One of the things that we might do as part of this national dialogue is hold some open houses, some listening sessions for various audiences. We’re trying to figure out who, what, where and why right now. The other thing we might decide to do is to hold an open-day jam session for the public. In the Web 2.0 language, a jam is when you bring a lot of different people together using different technologies to all talk about an issue.
Based on the lessons that we learned from our Information Access Challenge in November, I think we could do something with the broader public if we announced, “As part of the National Dialogue, we’re going to have this discussion and set aside a day or two when you can e-mail us, you can fax us, you can contribute via a wiki, you can upload a Web form, or we might do an EPA dialogue at the same time that we host on our Web site. We’re going to ask you some pointed questions about access and things, and you can contribute over the next two days.” And we can do it using different media events; we can podcast; we can do everything.
FedTech: What about green technologies and doing as much as you can to be as environmentally positive as possible in terms of your IT infrastructure? Is that a major push for EPA?
O’Neill: It doesn’t have to be a major push because we’re already doing so much there. I consider us a leader. We don’t think of things as green IT; it’s a whole green infrastructure. It’s lifecycle management here at EPA: everything from our facilities, to the computers on our desktops, to our printers, to our servers.
Have we done everything yet? No, but we have plans. We can gain some efficiencies by optimizing a lot of our servers because they may not be utilized in the most efficient manner. We’re also looking at virtualization so we don’t have to keep buying more servers and such. We’re already purchasing energy-efficient computers, and we recycle them. We look at everything, from the infrastructure itself to the facility that manages the infrastructure, as well as the disposal of these things in the environment.
FedTech: Is there a place on the EPA’s Web entities where IT managers can get tips and guidelines for things they can do within their own IT shops to be as environmentally friendly as possible? Is there a site that shows the best practices, that displays the questions and answers so the public can see what other people are asking about and what answers they’re getting?
O’Neill: Yes, there are a couple of places. EPA is very heavily involved with Energy Star, with the Dept. of Energy, which does the ratings for energy-efficient appliances and things like that. We also have information on EPEAT [Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool], a federal program that rates computer equipment and different types of products in terms of their environmental response. We may launch another site to give some helpful hints because we get so many calls on this now. We don’t have a single place, though, but several places for this, including www.energystar.gov and www.epeat.net.
FedTech: What are some of the security issues that EPA faces now, and what have you done to tackle some of those challenges?
O’Neill: I’m really proud of our security record. We’ve been rated A in the last couple of years, and we’re very, very proud of that. Keeping up our infrastructure and making sure it’s secure is my No. 1 priority because the agency basically goes down if the infrastructure’s not up. The problem with security is the threats are always changing, so as an agency we need to be adaptive to changing threats, try to keep at least one step ahead of them, keep abreast of all the newest tools to track and to help manage these threats, and also to work with other federal partners on the challenge because we can’t do this alone.
FedTech: Have you laid out any top technology initiatives for 2008?
O’Neill: Our top technology initiative is always securing the infrastructure by making sure we have the best tools in place. The second top priority is identity management. It’s related to security, but it’s moving us toward single sign-on one day and also to support all the security issues that we have.
Another technology priority is supporting the safety of imports through the International Trade Data System initiative. There’s going to be a single database for all import information coming into the United States. So federal agencies need to integrate and work with this system, and it’s a high priority for the federal government right now to have this implemented by 2009. Most people would say, “Oh, is the EPA affected by that?” And the answer is “Yes, big time!” We manage pesticides, hazardous wastes and other imports, and our systems need to integrate with this federal system.
FedTech: Everyone in the federal government is seeing an increased number of retirees. How are you doing in terms of your IT staff? Are you fully staffed?
O’Neill: We’re pretty fully staffed. We have a couple of vacancies, but not many.
FedTech: Great! To what do you attribute your ability to have a full shop?
O’Neill: We just haven’t had a lot of turnover in the last couple of years, especially in the senior spots. Like all federal agencies, we expect that to change over the next couple of years, but as people work longer and longer, it’s hard to tell.
FedTech: When you were hiring, what skill sets were you were going after?
O’Neill: For a couple of key spots, I was looking for people who had experience in enterprise architecture, security and identity management because these are the focus areas for us.
FedTech: In terms of enterprise architecture, what are you looking for? Someone with a lot of network infrastructure expertise? What things were especially important to you?
O’Neill: Specifically, people who can work with other people in the EPA to understand and plan out their systems and relate it to how it fits into the enterprise architecture — actually, the customer service piece of that. A lot of federal agencies, and the EPA is no different, do really well with writing plans for what enterprise architecture looks for, but equating that down to a business level is where we sometimes struggle, so talking the language of IT enterprise architecture at a business level is a real skill. Does that make sense to you?
FedTech: Yes, it does, because you have a lot of big ambitious plans, but you need someone who can talk to different folks in the business unit and understand their practical needs and then bring that knowledge into something that’s operational.
FedTech: Is there something else you’d like to bring up?
O’Neill: EPA is an organization that’s collaborative by nature within the organization itself, but we’ve also rolled out new initiatives over the years with many of our different partners. As CIO, one of the things I’m trying to concentrate on is these new Web 2.0 technologies, or, as we’re calling them from the CIO Council perspective, Gov 2.0. How do we put some of these tools out there to be more collaborative with our partners, whether it’s the public, sister agencies who are working on similar missions or other nonprofit groups? How do we use these to work faster and smarter in the government business? I think we need to, so we can continue to be relevant.
From a government perspective, it’s very alarming to me that if I do a Google search, I get blogs first. Social networking and many of the new collaborative tools have better tagging for Google and other search engines to grab hold of. Sometimes the information from authoritative sources you’re looking for is buried eight pages down.
The government needs to look at some of the newer Web 2.0 technologies, explore how they’re being used, and build policies and procedures around them. If we don’t, we’re going to be left behind; we’re going to be on Page 18. I think that’s something that all of us, as CIOs, are paying attention to. We have to.