Information sharing can help agencies coordinate strategy, but only if departments relinquish ownership of data.
For years, data had a home. It resided in an application on the network, and a particular group of people authorized to access that application controlled how the data was handled. But as information-sharing initiatives begin to take shape in government, data becomes more transient. And that leaves many feeling uncomfortable.
Most discussions about information sharing revert to security-how to ensure the protection and integrity of data as it travels across networks. But actually, culture could trump security in terms of difficulty.
"In government, we've spent generations protecting, limiting and hoarding information," says Thomas McNamara, program manager for the Information Sharing Environment Initiative at the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. "That culture has grown up over time and was actually enormously successful. Now we're sending the message that if you hang on to that methodology in the new age, you will fail. That's a tough message for a lot of people. Changing technology is a piece of cake by comparison."
Indeed, knowledge is power, which is one reason for people's reluctance to share information. Another is competitiveness. Many believe information just might offer an advantage. That mentality, McNamara argues, is more prevalent in middle management, while John Reece, independent IT consultant and former chief information officer at the Internal Revenue Service, says it's ubiquitous. "It's at all levels, and it will take dynamite to change it," he says.
So where does that leave those who are trying to push information-sharing initiatives? To get naysayers on board-or at least cooperating-they must be included in the discussion, says John Teeter, chief enterprise architect at the Health and Human Services Department. He works in the Office of the National Coordinator for Health Information Technology, which advises leaders on the development of a national health IT network that links federal, local and state governments as well as the private health care community.
"We seek everyone's participation," Teeter says. "Over time, the various agencies within HHS and in other federal communities have become experts in their own areas of responsibility-they understand the policies, regulations and laws, and the concerns of the constituencies. It makes sense for them to bring that knowledge to the more generic discussion." At the same time, employees at all levels start to feel invested. They view the advantage of sharing information in the broader context and are less resistant, he says.
A more open dialogue helps foster relationships, which is another key factor in encouraging information exchange. At the executive level, many credit growing collaboration between the Defense Department and ODNI, for example, to the longtime friendship of their two chief information officers, John Grimes and Dale Meyerrose, who announced his departure from ODNI in August. The two have known one another for years, and in July 2007, signed a memorandum that established a common vision for information sharing among Defense and intelligence agencies.
"A lot of this is about personal relationships- getting people in the room to work together and get to know one another on the human level," says Bruce McConnell, president of consulting firm McConnell International LLC. "Once that happens, it becomes about trust, rather than turf, and looking at the world as a place for collaboration, rather than maintaining control. But this can be a slow process."
Meanwhile, incentives help. Employees should be trained in secure methods of data exchange, McNamara says, and should be rewarded when they participate in information-sharing initiatives and penalized when they don't. Through the Information Sharing Environment Initiative, ODNI offers online training on how to manage information-customized to the missions of the agency and the role of the employee-and a manual on how to protect privacy and civil liberties.
McNamara is working with the Office of Personnel Management to incorporate information sharing into performance appraisal systems, rating managers on how well they encourage information sharing and workers on whether they follow through. Agencies have been asked to report their progress in participation and training.
Unfortunately, the most influential driver of change is often catastrophic events.
"There have been lessons learned from past experiences," Teeter says. "We start to say, 'What are the resources that we need to bring to bear based on those past experiences, and what is the data we need to ensure those resources can function effectively?' " Since Hurricane Katrina, which resulted in many people losing access to vital information like prescriptions when they were forced to evacuate, HHS launched pilot programs with public and private sector organizations to test their ability to exchange medical records electronically in emergency situations.
Similarly, the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, drove home the need for improved coordination and information exchange among federal, state and local government. New institutions were established, such as the National Counterterrorism Center, which serves as the primary organization for integrating and analyzing terrorism and counterterrorism intelligence. In addition, fusion centers have sprouted up in almost every state to collect information on terrorist threats from various sources and then "fuse" it to create a full picture of potential threats in their areas.
While slow and perhaps with less enthusiasm than other initiatives, information sharing is gaining momentum. And success stories breed success stories.
"This change has got to happen," says IT consultant Reece. "The very nature of everything going on in the world-technologically and operationally-says you can't hide in a corner and build a wall around yourself."