BlackBerrys in Hand, Hill Techies Plan Next Upgrade

Posted March 12, 2007 at 6:34pm

When Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) remembers his efforts to computerize the House, he recalls a time when he put his entire political capital at risk.

Ehlers had lofty goals, after all. He had to convince 434 others — including then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) — to use the Microsoft Exchange e-mail system over the ever-so-popular Lotus Notes.

“I had some real battles on that,” says Ehlers, who is now ranking member on the House Administration Committee. “But it turned out I was right.”

A lot has changed since Ehlers began his quest to computerize Congress shortly after the 1994 Republican takeover. For one, technology on Capitol Hill has dramatically improved. Every Member is connected to the Internet and all maintain Web sites (albeit some better than others). Staffers have e-mail addresses and many carry BlackBerrys or similar devices.

But looking toward the next decade, a number of questions remain as to how Congressional offices will run.

Will they remain separate entities or will they link together? How will Members incorporate new technology into their efforts? And is it possible to keep Congress secure from ongoing security threats?

At a recent House Administration hearing, Ehlers suggested the panel form a technology subcommittee to look at the issues. In this article, we’ll take a look at what solving those issues might entail, and how history might play a role.

Open House

Experts say it is time for another technology overhaul in the House, although it won’t be as simple as installing Windows Vista. The challenge is convincing Members to abandon their practice of running their offices as separate small businesses and, instead, to pool their resources, similar to how most major corporations run their technical systems.

“They’re spending more time on technology than they really need to be,” says Kathy Goldschmidt, deputy director of the Congressional Management Foundation. “By moving to a more centralized environment, they could free up some of their resources.”

Goldschmidt was part of a team of experts who spent a year talking to more than 100 Members, staffers and other House officials about technology on Capitol Hill. Goldschmidt and her colleagues presented their findings to the House Administration Committee in September, when Ehlers chaired the committee.

“We approached it from a business perspective, from a business of legislating perspective,” Goldschmidt says. “So instead of asking people about technology, we asked them about their jobs, their challenges and their needs in the future.”

For example, in the legislative process, different organizations have ownership of different things, Goldschmidt says.

“Throughout that process, legislation is going through different drafts, it’s going through different technologies,” Goldschmidt explains, adding that the challenge is to link everything, which would be a major undertaking. (After all, a bill makes many stops on its way to becoming a law — the clerk’s office, to committees, back to the House floor, over to the Senate, etc.)

“Technology is really the easy part,” Goldschmidt says. “With most of these things that were identified, the hard part is the political, the cultural, the change in rules, potentially changing traditions, changing how things are done.”

It won’t be easy, Goldschmidt admits. The New Zealand government has been trying to transform itself in a similar way since 1994.

“It’s slow, and it involves the entire country,” she says.

But such a dramatic overhaul has some precedent in the House.

When the Internet revolution began in the early 1990s, many Members caught on pretty quickly, setting up computers, e-mail accounts and servers themselves.

“Members who wanted them just got them, got their own server, got their own systems analyst,” Ehlers says. “We had 435 Members in Congress who had set up their own system, using their own equipment, their own software.”

That was a problem. E-mail systems between offices differed, so it often was easier to send an e-mail to another country than down the hall, according to Ehlers. So Gingrich charged Ehlers — who had managed to computerize the Michigan Legislature in the 1980s — with cleaning up the mess.

“It’s a horrible job,” Ehlers says. “And as I told [Gingrich], ‘If I do it right, nobody will ever notice or thank me. And if I do it wrong, everyone will criticize me.’”

But Ehlers plowed on, eventually setting up a consistent e-mail system, networking 11,000 computers and creating several Web sites, including the Library of Congress’ THOMAS system.

Yet today, Congress lags behind many state legislatures that work collaboratively when it comes to technology, Goldschmidt says. One way to begin to implement change on Capitol Hill might be to start with freshman Members, who come from such environments and could prove more adaptable to the change, she adds.

House Administration Chairwoman Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-Calif.) met with new Members at orientation to help them use technology to set up their offices. The Congresswoman also will have her top technology expert call upon all Members to see how the committee can help assist their needs, she said.

“You want Members, especially the newest Members, to know about e-newsletters, know about anything else that would be advantageous for them,” she says.

The chairwoman says one of her concerns is there are many Members who have constituents who are very high-tech, and those constituents will expect their representatives to know how to use technology as a communication tool.

“You want to at least balance it by keeping up with them,” she says. “It’s just a way of life now, and you certainly can’t get around it. With BlackBerrys, blueberries and red berries, you’ve got to keep up.”

Strategizing in the Senate

While the future of technology in the House still is being thought out, the Senate’s plans for the future are regularly updated to meet the changing times. The Office of the Sergeant-at-Arms oversees information technology in the Senate, and every two years it creates a strategic plan identifying the needs of the chamber.

In the 2006-2008 plan, five areas are highlighted: securing the Senate’s information infrastructure; creating a “customer service culture;” creating technology solutions driven by business needs; designing a system that provides access to critical Senate information off-site; and building a technology infrastructure built on modern technologies.

The basic goal is to design a secure system that works more like a business rather than a bureaucracy. For example, the office announced a few months ago it will begin to allow staffers to order mobile accessories, such as BlackBerrys and mobile phones, over the Senate Intranet.

“We’re doing a lot of work trying to move business processes and office processes to the Web,” says Greg Hanson, the Senate’s Assistant Sergeant-at-Arms and chief information officer.

But there are unique challenges in the Senate. Unlike a corporation, designed as a hierarchy where a select few can make decisions about technology needs, the Senate is decentralized.

And while House officials mull whether to work more collaboratively, the autonomy of Senate offices is likely to continue, Hanson says.

“It’s the way they do business,” Hanson explains. “It’s the way they have to function. Their data belongs to them.”

To deal with this complexity, Hanson and his colleagues work closely with Senate offices to get feedback on technology needs. His office sponsors a technology assessment group, which meets once a month to discuss such technology matters.

“So when we build systems, we know we’re building systems that they want built,” Hanson says.

The Sergeant-at-Arms regularly distributes newsletters to address topics such as spotting security risks and updating staffers on technology initiatives. When his department comes up with technology ideas, they also are presented to the group, which then votes on whether they think the new tools would be useful.

“It’s sort of the way the Senate works,” Hanson says. “We come together and vote.”

Securing Both Chambers

Perhaps the No. 1 issue technology experts say they deal with is securing data, and that concern could potentially hinder the process of uniting Congressional offices.

Ehlers says that while the concern is valid, safeguards are in place. He notes that the White House and Pentagon have been hacked, unlike the House — and it’s not because there haven’t been attempts. Technology personnel monitor the different attacks being made by potential hackers and have been highly successful at preventing damage, Ehlers says.

“Security, from the technical standpoint, the computer standpoint, is not a problem,” Ehlers explains. “We have a very sophisticated system in the House.”

Goldschmidt agrees, adding that many corporations that need to protect sensitive data often share servers and even outsource some of their technology needs. But political and legislative management is different, she admits.

A looming concern is that technology personnel could hack into the system and leak classified data, either to the news media or to a rival Member.

“You can only deal with that with very close scrutiny of the personnel,” Ehlers says. “They, of course, know they’ll be fired immediately, and might be prosecuted.”

When Ehlers oversaw the computerization of the Michigan Senate, officials were concerned that if Republicans and Democrats shared the same servers, data could be leaked between parties. So, in a compromise move, there were three servers set up for the Democrats and three for the Republicans.

“That seemed to satisfy everyone,” he recalls. “Even though they were sitting side-by-side.”

On the other side of the Capitol, the Sergeant-at-Arms office and the 100-plus tech workers in individual offices work together to ensure the security of the Senate system.

“I view us all like one big team,” Hanson says. “And it’s the kind of thing where you have to take a team approach.”

But Hanson admits that while tech experts try to distribute safeguards to offices as quickly as possible, nothing can ever be 100 percent safe.

“We have many layers of security,” he says. “But the information security challenge is something you have to work at 24/7. That’s never going to go away.”

Still, when it comes down to it, no matter what both chambers manage to do with their technology, it won’t change Members’ jobs overall.

“Members shouldn’t be burdened too much with technology,” Goldschmidt says. “It’s really important that Members interact face-to-face.”

John McArdle contributed to this report.