Icons of Information Technology

One of the first jobs for the chief information officers currently being installed at 27 federal agencies is to analyze information technology projects and determine if adequate returns are being made on investments. Tight budgets and personnel shortages have caused government organizations to heartily embrace new computer and telecommunications projects in recent years. But the papers are full of stories about failed systems strung together willy-nilly without strategic planning, budgeting and performance measurement.

Some agencies, though, are getting it right. Though they have received considerably less media coverage, these IT shops have crafted innovative, cost-effective solutions that are making significant differences in the way government serves its citizens.

The Federal Technology Leadership Awards program is designed to recognize these groups and their accomplishments. Created five years ago, the awards serve as inspiration to all aspiring to excellence in information technology. This year's 24 winning projects, selected from a field of 157 nominations submitted by government and industry, show what agencies can achieve if they are willing to scrap conventional work methods and try something different.

Programs were judged on their degree of difficulty, innovative use of technology, real cost savings and cross-agency impact. The winners range from a biometric identification system that "reads" hand prints and a magnetic source imaging technique that creates maps of brains to database management systems, bar-code scanning devices and networking efforts. Many of the projects involve making information available over the Internet. Project costs ranged from $210,000 to $26.5 million, with most falling at the low end-indicating, perhaps, government downsizing and acknowledgment that smaller plans are more manageable.

For the first time, five Federal Technology Leadership Awards went to state information technology projects. These were nominated by the Intergovernmental Enterprise Panel (IEP) in partnership with the National Association of State Information Resource Executives. IEP was chartered by the Government Information Technology Services Working Group, a federal interagency group, to improve intergovernmental service delivery to the public.

Judges for this year's Federal Technology Leadership Awards were: John B. Arthur, assistant director for administration at the Office of Management and Budget; David Borland, the Army's vice director of information systems for command, control, communications and computers; Timothy B. Clark, editor and publisher of Government Executive; Cynthia Kendall, research director at International Data Corp.'s government division; Alan Paller, president of the CIO Institute (a nonprofit organization); Anne F. Thomson Reed, acting chief information officer at the Agriculture Department; and Robert J. Woods, commissioner of the General Services Administration's Federal Telecommunications Service.

Special thanks for prescreening the nominations goes to the 1996 Executive Potential Program Cluster Group 1. The program trains promising people at the GS 13-14 level for management posts. Group members were Sharyn M. Abbott, management analyst at the Education Department's Literacy Foundation; Gary M. Campbell, civil engineer at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; David Eisenstark, financial analyst at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation; Rebecca M. Dean, telecommunications management specialist at the General Services Administration's Federal Telecommunications Service; Robert P. Gordon, contract specialist at the Energy Department; Nicholas Leivers, meteorologist at the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; Sheryl L. Mears, contract specialist at the Transportation Department; and Lurrie V. Pope, budget analyst at the Interior Department's National Park Service.

The teams who worked on the 24 winning projects were honored at an awards ceremony on Nov. 6 at the Washington Convention Center. Following is a summary of the 1996 Federal Technology Leadership Award winners.

EDUCATION AND TRAINING

TEACHING INSPECTORS

The Winners: Federal Aviation Administration

Three years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration's Academy for Flight Standards Service embarked on a project to provide standardized, cost-effective technical training to aircraft inspectors at decentralized locations. The goals were to reduce travel expenses associated with centralized classes and increase the flexibility of training so that inspectors could schedule it when convenient and, once involved, could proceed at their own pace.

The result was a computer-based instruction program that can be accessed via FAA's wide-area network, which is maintained by a program office in Oklahoma City. In addition to saving more than $4 million since 1993, the program has reduced training time by 30 percent and significantly raised test scores. (Deborah Wilcox, program manager, Programs & Contracts Management Branch, FAA Academy; 405-954-6790)

PREPARING FOR YEAR 2000

The Winners: Year 2000 Interagency Working Group

On Jan. 1, 2000, six-digit date fields in computer programs will read 01-01-00-causing machines to interpret the date as Jan. 1, 1900, instead of Jan. 1, 2000. This misinterpretation could cause computers to crash or, at the very least, to make costly and potentially dangerous miscalculations.

Nowhere will the so-called Year 2000 problem be more prevalent than in the federal government, where thousands of mainframes are operating on COBOL computer code written in the 1960s. The inability of that code to recognize the new millennium will affect all time-sensitive computer programs. If not addressed immediately, the Year 2000 (commonly known as Y2K) problem could have disastrous consequences.

The Year 2000 Interagency Working Group, chartered by the Office of Management and Budget, is raising awareness of the problem and helping federal organizations find the right approaches to analyzing source code, converting date fields and testing applications. The year-old group has recommended adoption of a standard for interagency date communication and has written contract language for acquiring Y2K-compliant technology. The group has sponsored several conferences in which best practices for addressing the problem were shared. (Kathleen Adams, chairperson, Y2K Interagency Working Group; 410-965-6294 www.itpolicy.gsa.gov)

ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION

IMPROVING COMPLIANCE

The Winners: Energy Department

Within the last two years, the Energy Department's Office of Environmental Policy and Assistance has released two innovative information technology products for helping government agencies, businesses and the general public comply with environmental laws. Development costs for both were about $250,000.

The first product is RQCalculator, a user-friendly computer program that provides a fast way to calculate the "reportable quantity" of hazardous substances released into the environment. The software, which was developed using hypertext programming techniques, is available free over the Internet at www.eh.doe.gov/oepa.

The second product, EnviroText, is an on-line environmental library (available at tamora.cs.umass.edu/info/envirotext) containing more than 3 million pages of federal laws and regulations pertaining to the environment. This resource, which uses search-engine technology, has enabled the Energy Department to cancel costly contracts with private information vendors. (Gerald DiCerbo, environmental protection specialist, Office of Environmental Policy and Assistance; 202-586-5047 gerald.dicerbo@eh.doe.gov)

PROTECTING WATER

The Winners: Environmental Protection Agency

The mission of the Environmental Protection Agency's Office of Underground Storage Tanks is to protect the nation's groundwater from more than 2 million underground storage tanks containing petroleum or other hazardous substances. The office is responsible for giving information, training and technical assistance to states on effective tank-management programs.

EPA became aware that downsizing had seriously affected states' ability to manage millions of pieces of data, such as names of tank owners and contents, leak detection methods, tank construction materials, contamination details, cleanup technologies, types of permits issued and fee calculations. Last summer, the agency spent $580,000 to develop and implement a user-friendly relational database system called UST-Access, which has 982 data fields in 103 tables.

The system helps states manage data on tanks efficiently and cost-effectively by integrating information, eliminating redundant data entry, simplifying reporting and analyzing data. It has made it easy for states to determine levels of compliance with requirements for leak detection, corrosion protection and overflow prevention. (Lisa Lund, acting director, Office of Underground Storage Tanks; 703-603-9900 lund.lisa@epamail.epa.gov)

INFORMATION GATHERING AND PROCESSING

DETERMINING ELIGIBILITY

The Winners: Veterans Health Administration

Responsibility for determining who is eligible for medical benefits under the Veterans Health Administration's CHAMPVA program used to be divided among more than 200 VA medical facilities. This decentralized system led to inadequate eligibility and authorization controls, mainly because data was not being shared between facilities. Consequently, beneficiaries who no longer qualified for entitlements were rarely purged from enrollment files.

Administrative costs escalated because commercial firms were performing all claims processing. In 1987, VHA moved to centralize CHAMPVA functions by spending $7 million on integrated information systems designed to maintain program integrity, boost service and cut costs.

VHA created a database that incorporated an applications processing system supporting automated reviews and updates. It was designed to interface with VA's Master Veteran Record File and the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Recording System database. Enrollment soon was trimmed from 230,000 to 90,000, saving $62 million.

The agency integrated a document-imaging and distribution subsystem, and used artificial intelligence to create a sophisticated benefit-calculation module. These systems have saved an additional $53 million. (Charles DeCoste, director, Health Administration Center; 303-331-7500)

EASING REPORTING BURDENS

The Winners: Bureau of Labor Statistics

Since 1986, the Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics has spent $3 million employing new technologies to collect monthly payroll data from 400,000 companies. The information is used to compile the Current Employment Statistics survey, which provides information about the U.S. economy.

Instead of collecting data via paper forms mailed by employers each month, the BLS now uses several automated data collection techniques. A data entry/voice recognition system enables company representatives to call a toll-free number and respond to recorded questions using their keypads or voices. Electronic data interchange technology enables large multi-unit firms to reduce their reporting burdens by filing directly from corporate databases. Responses also may be filed on-line via the Internet at www.bls.gov.

These automated data-collection techniques have cut BLS mailing costs and freed agency employees from labor-intensive mail handling and keypunch activities. Response rates have increased from 50 percent to 80 percent and revisions (as a result of late reporting) have been reduced by 39 percent. (Richard Clayton, branch chief, Monthly Industry Employment Statistics Division; 202-606-6520 clayton_r@bls.gov)

EXPEDITING INSPECTIONS

The Winners: Immigration and Naturalization Service

In order to streamline the inspections process for people entering the United States, the Immigration and Naturalization Service developed the INS Passenger Accelerated Service System (INSPASS). The $7 million program provides speedy, automated inspections for frequent travelers considered low security risks.

Under the program, information from traveler application forms is entered into a database and checked against a multi-agency lookout system. Each applicant's hand print and fingerprint is electronically captured and stored. Approved travelers are issued INSPASS cards, which may be used to conduct automated inspections at kiosks located at ports of entry. Passengers can run their cards through a computer, which will open the gate if they are cleared to leave the airport. Immigration inspectors do periodic compliance checks on passengers.

Almost 80,000 travelers have enrolled in INSPASS since it began three years ago. The program has reduced the average inspection time from one minute to less than 30 seconds, giving inspectors more time to spend with high-risk travelers. In addition, the program has eliminated long immigration lines for many travelers. (Stacey Day, INSPASS Technical Manager; 202-307-6106)

VERIFYING INCOME

The Winners: Veterans Affairs

In order to verify each veteran's eligibility status, the Veterans Affairs Department has to compare reported income to IRS and Social Security Administration records. Four years ago, in an attempt to improve the integrity of VA databases, the agency began using customized software and electronic data interchange technology to check reported earnings against government records.

The $26.5 million project, which consolidates two of the agency's income verification programs, centralizes collection of income data. A sophisticated imaging system places bar codes on all incoming correspondence, which is then scanned and stored on optical disks. Demographic and eligibility information is constantly updated and sent electronically to all VA medical facilities.

Results of the program have been dramatic: More than 40,000 veterans were found to have higher eligibility status than entitled. Subsequent downgrading of their positions resulted in a savings of $23 million. Approximately 24,000 veterans were identified as having insurance coverage equating to more than $26 million, which the government could collect from insurance companies. Almost 5,000 deaths were discovered and shared with other databases, and nearly 415,000 incorrect Social Security numbers were identified and are being corrected. (Alan Begbie, director, Income Verification Match Center; 404-235-1300 g.it1@ivm.va.gov)

LAW ENFORCEMENT

PATROLLING BORDERS

The Winners: Immigration and Naturalization Service

In early 1995, the U.S. Border Patrol instituted its Intelligent Computer Assisted Detection system, which automatically tracks those suspected of illegally crossing into U.S. territory. The system uses seismic, magnetic and infrared sensors to detect movement at U.S. borders. Alarm signals generated by the sensors automatically notify agents and provide information on where suspects are located. Sensor path analysis incorporates artificial intelligence to help identify and track intruders.

The system also collects information about the name of the responding agent and whether drugs or other contraband were seized. A real-time database provides instantaneous graphical analysis of illegal border crossings.

Within the last year, the system has helped INS agents apprehend 1.2 million people illegally crossing U.S. borders. (Fernanda Young, INS Assistant Commissioner for Data Systems; 202-514-4517)

MEDICAL CARE

ANALYZING BRAIN FUNCTIONS

The Winners: Veterans Affairs

The Magnetic Source Imaging Facility of the Joint Imaging Service at the Albuquerque Veterans Affairs Medical Center, in conjunction with the University of New Mexico and private industry, has created a new technique for measuring the magnetic signals generated by the brain's electronic activity. Magnetic source imaging (MSI) helps create a map of a patient's brain that shows where activity occurs. Such a map enables a neurosurgeon to remove as much unhealthy tissue as possible without compromising a patient's functions.

MSI is used before operations for brain tumors and epilepsy, and in the treatment of strokes, Alzheimer's disease, multiple sclerosis and other disorders. It costs less $2,000, compared to as much as $75,000 for other techniques. MSI results in shorter hospital stays, reduced physical therapy and fewer follow-up visits.

The technique is performed with a biomagnetometer, which looks like a large hair dryer and contains 122 superconducting sensors for performing analysis of brain functions. The Magnetic Source Imaging Facility is the only center in the country with a biomagnetometer. Since the facility was created as a joint venture, roughly a quarter of the $7.7 million required to develop MSI was obtained from outside of government. More than 1,500 brain studies have been performed at the facility during the last five years. (Dr. Michael Hartshorne, chief, Joint Imaging Service, Albuquerque VA Medical Center; 505-256-5711)

PREVENTING ERRORS

The Winners: Veterans Affairs

To prevent errors in administering medications to patients at the Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center in Topeka, Kan., a group of nurses, pharmacists and computer programmers teamed up to develop the Wireless Point of Care Medication System. The $350,000 system automatically checks that the right dosage of medicine is being given to the right patient at the right time.

Nurses now use lightweight, hand-held wireless terminals containing bar-code scanners to read identification badges on both patients and medications. Warning sounds and "alert" messages on computer screens indicate when medicine is about to be given to the wrong patient, or if some other mistake is about to be made.

Since implementing the system last year, the medical center reports that overall medication errors have been reduced by 60 percent. (Edgar Tucker, director, Colmery-O'Neil VA Medical Center; 913-272-3111)

PUBLIC ACCESS

PLANNING COMMUNITIES

The Winners: Housing and Urban Development Department

With the help of public housing authorities across the country, the Department of Housing and Urban Development set out two years ago to create a communications system that would make community planning and housing project information readily available to city planners, community residents, architects, builders, schools and libraries. After consolidating four major programs into one, HUD spent $300,000 to create a software package that handles complicated data and arranges it on maps so that it can be easily understood.

The maps, which are available on the World Wide Web at www.hud.gov, show where local governments plan to make investments using HUD funds. More than 150 data elements are included, such as income levels, unemployment rates and the number of homeless people.

The project has eliminated duplication of effort by various governments and neighborhood organizations. It also has reduced paperwork and increased efficiency at HUD's Office of Community Planning and Development. In 1995, for instance, the office administered 82 percent more program funds with 20 percent fewer staff members. (Richard Burk, director, HUD's community connections division; 202-708-2504)

PROVIDING TAX INFORMATION

The Winners: Internal Revenue Service

One of the most innovative sites on the Internet's World Wide Web belongs to the IRS (www.irs.ustreas.gov). Developed in just four months with a budget of about $400,000, the site offers an easy way for taxpayers and tax preparers to get information 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The home page looks like a retro tabloid newspaper and offers electronic links to regulatory information, tax publications and IRS press releases. About 600 different kinds of tax forms are available, in addition to a section on frequently asked questions and summaries of more than 150 tax topics. Net surfers can obtain everything from disaster-relief assistance to tax kits for new businesses via the Web site. E-mail queries are answered quickly by IRS staffers standing by at the other end.

The IRS Web site was developed last year using SGML (standard generalized markup language), a powerful data format available with three types of customized user interfaces. Within its first six months of operation, the site had more than 66 million "hits," or visitors, and about 2.5 million forms were downloaded. (Linda Wallace, IRS electronic information services team leader; 202-927-4288 linda.wallace@ccmail.irs.gov)

COMMAND AND CONTROL

STANDARDIZING DATA

The Winners: Defense Mapping Agency

Three years ago, the Defense Mapping Agency set out to provide integrated, electronic views of battle spaces that could be shared in near-real time by war fighters, planners, policy makers and supporting groups. The agency accomplished this goal by standardizing the geospatial data required to mount joint military exercises.

Using IDEF (integrated CAM definition languages) methodologies, DMA created data models that were consistent with all databases in the DoD community. The result was a suite of standard data elements that describe significant geospatial objects. Such standardized data helps minimize confusion, errors and casualties during military operations. (Jacob Teller, project manager, interoperability division, Acquisition and Technology Group; 301-227-2771)

PROCESSING OCEAN DATA

The Winners: Navy

The Naval Oceanographic Office (NAVOCEANO) at Stennis Space Center in Mississippi is responsible for collecting and interpreting a vast amount of data about the world's oceans. The information is used for navigational purposes and to predict the effects of oceans on naval weapons systems.

Four years ago, NAVOCEANO began developing an $11 million integrated database management system to store and analyze 150 years worth of ocean information. A collection of commercial, off-the-shelf networked servers was combined with database management software to produce a repository of digital information that is used by all the military services. Data categories include gravity, water depth, geomagnetics and acoustics.

Data requests that used to take weeks now can be answered in hours. In addition, the database management system has enabled NAVOCEANO to save about 90 percent of the money it used to spend on software development. The system is the cornerstone of the Hydrographic Source Assessment System being developed to couple NAVOCEANO's data with information from the Defense Mapping Agency and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (Robert Starek, IDBMS program manager, NAVOCEANO; 601-688-5189 rstarek@wpo.navo.navy.mil)

COMMUNICATIONS

CONSOLIDATING NETWORKS

The Winners: Interior Department

In response to a National Performance Review initiative to consolidate networks and meet increasing demand for more interconnectivity and bandwidth among federal agencies, the Interior Department established the Alaska Regional Telecommunications Network (ARTNet) last year. The wide-area network project, which thus far has cost $210,000, enables organizations to eliminate expensive and redundant dedicated data-communications lines and modem connections.

ARTNet, which is open to all government agencies in Alaska, connects Juneau, Fairbanks and Anchorage to each other with the Interior Department's DOINet high-speed connections. Participants include the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the U.S. Geological Survey.

Communications costs for participants have been cut an average of 44 percent as a result of bandwidth being consolidated on a large backbone network. Network capacity and interconnectivity, meanwhile, have improved substantially. (Daniel Healey, ARTNet project coordinator; 907-271-4444 daniel_healey@ios.doi.gov)

PROCUREMENT

SIMPLIFYING PURCHASES

The Winners: Federal Supply Service

As part of its reinvention program, the Federal Supply Service opened an Internet site designed to make it easy for federal purchasers to buy goods from GSA schedules. The 1-year-old GSA Advantage site (www.gsa.gov) is an on-line shopping mall offering 4 million products from 7,000 vendors on 130 government schedules. Buyers can use the point-and-click ordering system to purchase everything from copiers to cars.

Shoppers can quickly search for products, compare prices, obtain billing history and document all transactions. Many products ordered electronically can be shipped within 24 hours, thus enabling agencies to keep low inventories and eliminate warehouses. Customers can pay for purchases with GSA Activity Address Codes, IMPAC credit cards or EDI purchase orders.

GSA Advantage has reduced the average cost to issue a purchase order from $30 to less than $9. In addition, Federal Supply Service employees no longer have to deal with orders submitted with illegible handwriting, transposed product numbers or out-of-date catalog data. (William Gormley, assistant commissioner, FSS Office of Acquisition; 703-305-7901 william.gormley@gsa.gov)

HELPING THE DISABLED

The Winners: Defense Department

The Defense Department's Computer/Electronic Accommodations Program (CAP), started six years ago, procures adaptive computer and telecommunications gear for employees with disabilities. Such equipment includes voice-recognition systems, Braille printers, screen-magnification software and scanners with voice output.

Before 1990, Defense agencies had to purchase adaptive equipment with their own money. But now that the equipment is centrally funded, DoD says costs of accommodation are no longer a factor in deciding whether to hire disabled workers.

CAP's large-quantity purchasing has significantly reduced DoD spending on accommodations equipment.

CAP has fulfilled more than 9,000 requests for accommodations. Workers' compensation claims have dropped because fewer disabled employees are taking time off. The program even has helped employees avoid disability retirement. (Dinah Cohen, CAP director; 703-681-3976 cap@ha.osd.mil http://www.ha.osd.mil )

BENEFITS DISBURSEMENT

REPLACING PAPER STAMPS

The Winners: Agriculture Department

More than 25 million people are eligible for $2 billion worth of food stamps each month. These coupons must be printed, placed in booklets and distributed across the country. In the process, some are lost and others are stolen. Food stamp recipients redeem them at one of 200,000 participating food retailers. After that, the coupons are processed by more than 10,000 banks and then destroyed by the Federal Reserve.

The process is time-consuming and cumbersome. To streamline the Food Stamp Program, the Agriculture Department's Food and Consumer Service has been working for the last decade to replace paper coupons with an electronic benefit transfer program. Using a subset of electronic data interchange technology known as electronic funds transfer, USDA links communications networks to point-of-sale terminals, retailers, financial institutions, automated clearinghouses and government offices.

Such links enable food stamp recipients in five states to redeem benefits electronically. All states will participate by 2002. The collaborative effort between USDA, state governments and the private sector is relieving administrative burdens and reducing fraud and theft. (Joseph Leo, deputy administrator for management, Food and Consumer Service; 703-305-2030 a30jleo@attmail.com)

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