Treasury secretary to push interoperable systems

By Patrick Thibodeau, Computerworld |  Government

New U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill yesterday outlined a broad IT vision for his department, with an emphasis on systems interoperability. He also cited a belief in the need to provide clear direction from the top, after having felt the frustration that comes from ineffective management in his own days as a computer systems analyst.

It was a message that struck a chord with O'Neill's audience of IT workers from the Treasury Department and its affiliate agencies, including the Secret Service and the Internal Revenue Service. O'Neill, who took office last month, was the featured speaker at an IT-focused conference sponsored by the Treasury Department and the Armed Forces Communications and Electronics Association.

O'Neill is the former CEO of Alcoa Inc. in Pittsburgh. But in the early 1960s, at the start of his career, he was a systems analyst at the U.S. Veterans Administration. Citing a lack of direction by top managers, he recalled times "when I would sit and stare at the ceiling and say, 'Why don't they just tell us what the hell they want.' "

That comment prompted an outburst of knowing laughter from the audience. "You've all been there too, right?" O'Neill asked with a grin. But he gave every indication that he plans to take an active leadership role on IT issues within the department. "I am very interested in using IT to improve the value equation of what we get out of everything we do," O'Neill said.

The fundamental principle of IT management is that "information should belong to everyone in the organization," O'Neill said. "No one should be permitted to be, in effect, smarter than other people because they control the flow of information." Access to data is vital to fostering creative decision-making, he said.

Interoperability is another priority. O'Neill said he learned the importance of "commonality" in systems from his work in the private sector. While proprietary or specially modified software can deliver some advantages to users, he added, the trade-off -- the inability to easily share data between different parts of an organization -- isn't worth making.

The interoperability O'Neill said he wants to see has been a major issue for many federal agencies. "It's a culture issue for us," said Treasury Department CIO John Flyzik, who was recently appointed acting assistant secretary for management. "We learned from Y2k just how disjointed we really were."

But Flyzik, who also spoke at yesterday's conference, said the Treasury Department is now working on new enterprise applications that rely on Internet technologies. The Internet "opens up this whole new world of opportunity to work together on interoperable solutions," he said. O'Neill's emphasis on enterprise IT issues should also help, Flyzik added.

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