DHS unleashing data analysts to improve investments

WILLIAMSBURG, Va.– A new management initiative at the Homeland Security Department aims to turn data into decision-making power.

DHS plans to officially launch the Management Cube in early 2014 with the goal of merging back-office data into one platform. Then, the agency will unleash data analysts to find trends and discover opportunities to improve mission investments.

“Our central tenet was that it’s an integration strategy that we wanted to harness and leverage the information we have in our various CXO lines of business, finance, IT, procurement, security, personnel, real estate and bring all of that together and create for DHS the first-ever enterprise system that would allow a secretary and the leadership to have informed information and be able to make informed decisions,” said Rafael Borras at the Executive Leadership Conference sponsored by ACT-IAC.

Borras is the acting deputy secretary of DHS, and he spent the last four years as the undersecretary for management. He said officials before him didn’t have access to the data or tools to make sense of the data and that’s a scary thought because of the complexity of the agency’s mission.

He said through the Management Cube, DHS wants to create an integrated structure to go from strategy to resourcing to execution.

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“It is so powerful, and it’s not just to put in the hands of leaders. It’s really to push it out to the frontlines to the program managers and project managers who really need this information,” he said. “That, I think, is one of the things that defines, not will we operate like a business, but can we operate more business- like. By empowering our project managers, our program mangers and our frontline personnel with the information they need to be better able to manage will just be revolutionary for us.”

DHS has been working on the Management Cube program for the better part of two years and will officially launch it in January.

Share-first culture

To prepare for the Management Cube initiative, DHS had to make some basic changes, starting with standardizing data and creating a share-first, trusting culture.

Keith Trippie, the executive director of the Enterprise System Development Office in the DHS office of the chief information officer, said the agency started with the basic question, what would it do with an extra dollar if it had it?

Trippie said that led to a lot of other questions.

“Where we are going to focus here on the Management Cube is around — think of it this way — on the business side in the private sector, investment portfolio analytics. Instead of trying to look and answer questions about a vertical slice of an organization, in this case whether it’s Customs and Border [Protection], the Transportation Security Administration or the Coast Guard, what we wanted to do with the Cube is look at things horizontally,” he said. “Just taking a horizontal slice across the organization is easier said than done. How funding comes in, how it’s authorized, how it’s appropriated, how contracts are set up and how people are brought into the agency — that’s very vertically driven in most agencies. We’re not much different, so the challenge over the last year or so since we’ve been on this with the Management Cube is how do we start to look at things horizontally?”

Trippie said DHS started by working 8-to-9 months to standardize data definitions. The executive governance council, which is led by the lines of business officials from each of the components, agreed upon 61 terms.

He said that means something simple like the definition of full-time equivalent (FTE) had to be created in a way to ensure everyone went back to their agencies with exactly the same understanding of what it meant.

“We have a common platform that is now bringing disparate datasets from 12-to-15 different source systems. We have over 400 different views that have been created and that are now shared across the different lines of business executives and senior leadership as they see fit,” Trippie said. “We have information around the risks of our programs that we didn’t have transparency into before. We are reducing the number of data calls.”

Two IT challenges

There still are several ongoing challenges, the biggest of which is change management. Trippie said creating the share-first culture where people trust each other with their data is taking some time, but slowly coming together.

Trippie said there are two ongoing IT challenges, including bringing together information that DHS had never brought together before from different data sources and different systems.

The other IT challenge is ensuring the enterprisewide platform can process and return data quickly. Trippie said the delay in getting information back to the decision-makers is like a pilot flying an airplane and getting weather data three weeks after the flight already landed. He said importing and processing data quickly is one of the areas that DHS is focusing on over the next three months.

The idea for the Management Cube came from Borras’ time in local government where data played a huge role in everything they did.

Borras said local government teaches that knowing what the problems are, whether it is trash pickup or potholes that need fixing, relies on data. So the only way local officials can tell citizens when the county will fix something is through accurate and timely data.

Borras said for DHS, the Management Cube represents a way to adjust to the budget cuts that every agency is facing.

Making every dollar count

But it’s more than just money.

“It’s being able to, and I talked about the drive we have, to link up strategy, budgeting and resources to execution and to be able to get that cycle,” Borras said. “To be able to convince the American people that every dollar we spend, we know why we are spending it. We know why we programmed. We know how we want to budget it. We know how we want to manage and monitor it, and we know what we want to execute against. And most importantly, to be able to tell them what success looks like. That’s the key for us.”

He added DHS isn’t alone in needing to be able to demonstrate how it’s managing its spending.

“The challenge moving forward through all the times, financial austerity we are going through now, it’s not just budgeting. It’s not a budgeting problem. It’s not a math problem,” he said. “I think it’s a problem of making choices. Do I spend here or do I spend there? Do I take a dollar away from here? Do I put it over here? On what basis do we make those choices? And that’s why we need these tools, and that’s why we need this information.”

Borras said agencies will be asked to make tough choices in the coming months, and industry is involved in those decisions.

He said the Management Cube will give senior officials the tools and knowledge to deal with sequestration and have the confidence that every dollar is focused on results.

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