DHS Management Cube brings IT, contracting assets into sharper focus

The Homeland Security Department is starting to get a clearer picture of its own asset portfolio.

DHS is well into the second phase of its Management Cube initiative, after spending the first few years consolidating and gathering financial, acquisition, human capital, contracting, asset and security data from all DHS components in one place.

Now, the department is focusing its phase two efforts on building stronger connections across those six lines of business.

“It’s not a technical challenge,” Kirsten Dalboe, program manager for the DHS Management Cube, told Federal News Radio. “It’s really getting all of the stakeholders out there to appreciate that this is potentially going to modify the way in which they think about their information.  Collecting human capital information or real property information or IT information, it’s not just about that information, but it’s also how it touches another line of business’ work.”

Kirsten Dalboe, program manager for the DHS Management Cube

For example, questions about the DHS’ office space occupancy rate are difficult to answer. The department’s chief human capital office manages the civilian workforce, and the real property manager handles the DHS office space footprint. But those offices cannot easily determine which DHS employees are assigned to which buildings.

“Who’s really responsible for owning that data connection?” Dalboe said during a presentation at the Association for Enterprise Information’s FITARA Symposium in Arlington, Virginia, Oct. 22. “It’s an important question that we asked a lot, but it lives in this gray area. We’re starting to put together a structure and governance to be able to answer that question.”

The department also is in the midst of developing consistent accounting and appropriations standards, as part of phase two of the Management Cube initiative.

DHS spent about a year-and-a-half building the Cube’s foundation using processes the department and its components already had. This was key, Dalboe said, because it meant DHS employees could continue to use the systems they already were familiar with — and avoid the massive culture shift that would come with large procedural changes.

“We’d probably still be toiling away trying to figure out how to rebuild a real property system when we really didn’t have to do that,” she said. “We already have real property systems out there that the components are using, that they’re inputting information in, that they pass then to headquarters for that comprehensive report. Let’s build off what we already know works.”

It also brought together the department’s six chief executives to identify the top challenges and questions they report on regularly. From there, DHS officially defined 61 business terms — words such as “asset” and “program” — and added them to the department’s lexicon.

“This was probably the biggest realization early on,” Dalboe said. “When we first launched, we thought, ‘Hey, let’s just start building a tool.’ Within that first meeting we realized, we have no ability to start connecting that data until we’re all speaking the same language.”

Before DHS set up this platform, Dalboe said agency program managers often spent weeks making data calls within the department.

“We need to try to clean up that process,” Dalboe said. “We want to have a place where you can come and get at least a first set of information, and then you have time to get it out there, get it approved, get it reviewed — is this right answer? How do we get the right data in the right context? Rather than spending the two weeks we had watching the request bounce around before we finally find the right person to ask.”

The Cube helps DHS align its IT assets with six dimensions — who, what, where, when, why and how.  Eventually, Dalboe said the department hopes it can align other lines of business, such as people and contracting, with those six dimensions.

Better portfolio management is important to the DHS, in part, because of the new requirements all agencies have under the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act. But with or without FITARA, the department needs a clear understanding of what it and its 22 component agencies are doing, Dalboe said.

“Without a picture like this, you really don’t get a true view of what the department’s doing,” she said. “We have five very disparate missions, so people often forget who work in the one mission that we are also doing a lot of other mission work across the different components. People sometimes forget how different components play into similar mission spaces. This is a tool that actually allows us to see how all of us connect.”

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