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Congress Needs IT Steering Committee

Congress needs to create a steering committee to straighten out its IT mess.

That's the principal recommendation of an expert witness testifying to the House Administration Committee this morning.

Gartner analyst Larry Bradley told the committee that the House could reap the benefits of economies of scale and improved functionalities if purchasing decisions and management were centralized.

"Currently, the House spends 33 percent more on IT support than other organizations with similar profiles," Bradley said.

House administrators and IT staffers are forced to maintain a patchwork of largely incompatible computers, platforms and networks, according to several witnesses who testified this morning at the behest of Administration Committee Chairman Vernon Ehlers.

Those IT solutions and applications are being used to support a gamut of activities, from remote communications and electronic filing of legislation by Congressional aides, to the issuance of identification badges by the House Sergeant at Arms.

Kathy Goldschmidt, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF), noted that House IT spending is "like 440 different small businesses that largely make their own decisions about technology purchasing."

Never mind a steering committee, at this point the House of Representatives doesn't even have a roadmap.

Bradley and Goldschmidt, presenting their recommendations for a 10-year plan for the use of technology in the House, considered a range of alternative solutions for centralizing IT decision-making for the House, Bradley said.

According to Bradley, they considered suggesting the creation of a CIO-type position, but ultimately recognized that a steering committee was most appropriate, given the way that the House is traditionally organized.

At this point, however, "no one has overall authority" to enforce any standards or manage the body's IT infrastructure.

Ehlers himself was taken aback by that statement.

"I thought this committee did," he said.

But Bradley explained that the House Appropriations Committee and the Rules Committee have responsibility for some of these decisions as well.

Goldschmidt noted that several forces at play would help push a centralized plan through Congress.

"The budget crunch is placing pressure on the House to reduce costs," she noted.

She also said a blueprint would help prepare for future security crises; meet the increasing demands for information among constituents and press; and help legislators meet the increasingly demanding legislative cycle.

Goldschmidt said it will be harder to overcome cultural obstacles to change than technical ones.

"Practices that have been in place for decades are coming into conflict with modern life," she noted.

For instance, it would make more sense for members to share a single server or set of servers rather than each maintaining their own.

"I've never seen so many distributed servers in an organization of this size," Ehlers concurred.

But most Representatives are suspicious of their political adversaries, and believe it's safer to keep their files on their own servers.

Bradley said that this type of objection can be overcome with effective communications.

"You have to explain that having a server in your office increases expense and actually reduces security," he noted.