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.

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