Government technology made huge leaps during past decade

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks spurred the development of information sharing, backup systems, consolidation, social networking and more attention on cybersecurity.

The first decade of the new millennium marked a technological growth spurt for the federal government, giving rise to key information technology developments that have freed federal workers from Washington offices -- and the information stored there, say public and private sector IT specialists.

It all started with the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, events that forced the Bush administration to rethink information sharing and continuity of government operations. More federal employees were allowed to use consumer technologies, such as Webmail and handheld devices, to work outside the office. Today, the Obama administration has continued the trend with an added twist. The White House has encouraged employees to telework not just during emergencies, but routinely, a practice that supports the administration's policy to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.

"Think of 9/11 -- everything here really shut down," said Susie Adams, chief technology officer for Microsoft Federal Civilian. "The only thing that worked was the Internet. We couldn't use our cell phones [or agency networks]. Think about the challenges that that caused. Really nobody could get any work done."

The attacks also spurred the development of collaborative, Web-based systems for program management. Wikis, or Web pages that anyone can edit, began to show up on internal networks in 2005. One of the more notable projects was the intelligence-community wiki called Intellipedia, patterned after the popular publicly authored Wikipedia. It started as a pilot project in September 2005. Intellipedia runs on classified networks that are accessible to all federal intelligence agencies.

Even before 9/11, the federal government was moving toward collaborative IT. In May 2001, Independent Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, then a Democrat, introduced what would become the 2002 E-Government Act. It codified the Chief Information Officers Council as the principal forum for improving the design and sharing of federal information resources.

The events of the early half of the decade were the impetus behind the government's adoption of social networking tools, the consolidation of hardware such as servers and the standardization of security practices, Adams said.

A Dec. 22 message to the White House e-mail list signaled how much government now relies on IT. "The very e-mail you are reading underscores our dependence on information technologies in this digital age, which is why it seemed like a fitting way to announce that the president has chosen Howard Schmidt to be the White House cybersecurity coordinator. Howard will have the important responsibility of orchestrating the many important cybersecurity activities across the government," stated the note from John Brennan, assistant to the president for homeland security and counterterrorism.

"We used to think of IT as just mainframes, and desktops and PCs as just home computing," Adams said. "Think about the BlackBerry. . . . You couldn't receive a top-secret e-mail. Now you can."

The government in 2008 began using handheld devices capable of communicating classified information. The smart phones can exchange classified e-mails and log onto top-secret networks.

Brand Niemann, a senior enterprise architect at the Environmental Protection Agency who works to improve the public's access to environmental data, said consumer oriented smart phones such as the iPhone also have transformed government. Through Web-based applications that manipulate federal data, citizens can access for example fuel economy information with the tap of a finger.

Niemann's other favorite game-changing technologies include the broadcast text-messaging service Twitter, which allows citizens to get short announcements from agencies. He also cites cloud computing, an on-demand service for renting hardware, software and Web services that agencies are using to consolidate operations.

Niemann said he uses his personal iPhone because it is more versatile than government handhelds, and "saves the government money on my time and support needs." He added that it "works well with my cloud computing desktop apps."

Meanwhile, virtual private networks and standard-issue BlackBerries are allowing many civilian personnel to log on to office networks remotely. "I wouldn't say that agencies are completely there yet," Adams acknowledged, noting that there is no governmentwide standard rule allowing e-mail access from home. White House officials can promote working remotely online, but "agencies can still squash it and say we're not comfortable doing it," she added.

While post-Sept. 11 rules and e-government policies have accelerated changes in the federal workplace, security regulations and privacy concerns still pose challenges for long-distance collaboration, Adams said.

"I think everybody's a little nervous now and [officials] say, 'We can't use these commercial sites because data has leaked out,' " she said. But "I think that's where the world is headed."