Inside the FBI's IT Transformation

By Pam Baker

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Like most CIOs, Zalmai Azmi is adjusting to his changing role and reengineering his IT department. If his pressures stopped there, he would merely be counted among the sea of IT leaders marshalling the tide of change. But here, in the top secret caves of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the tide itself is moved by political winds and opposing world forces ultimately leading to a tsunami of mission redirection.

Historically, the FBI has been a law enforcement agency that investigates crimes after they occur. Today’s post 9/11 FBI is focused on finding criminals and terrorists before they attack. This means that while most CIOs are moving towards a target, Azmi is aiming at a moving target. This new mission requires a complete restructuring of IT and an unprecedented level of information sharing between agencies and agents.

As executive assistant director (EAD) and CIO, Azmi attends daily meetings with Director Robert Mueller and the entire FBI Executive Management (EM) team. A typical day also involves daily interaction and meetings with the Information and Technology Branch (ITB) EM staff to discuss strategy, policy, and project management of priority systems and application development efforts and initiatives.

IT in Action

SENTINEL is the most visible application being developed by ITB. The highly scalable SENTINEL is an intuitive, Web-based information management system that will make it easier for agents, analysts and supervisors to manage cases and share and access information. In June 2007, the FBI successfully delivered Phase 1 which established the foundation for the whole enterprise. “SENTINEL is our first major Web-based application that will be available on every desktop. And it’s the first time we’re pushing information to the agents,” said Azmi.

“Just last week, we delivered the SENTINEL enterprise portal (SEP) which allows a full view of all the work you need to deal with—how many leads you have, how many tasks, how many cases. As a supervisor, I can look at my squad workbox and see how many agents I have and what their workload is,” he explains. “Previously this had to be done screen-by-screen. SEP allows you to view the whole picture.”

As part of a top-to-bottom reorganization of the FBI's IT resources, the FBI established the ITB in 2004 to centrally manage all IT responsibilities, activities, policies, and employees across the Bureau.

“With the FBI's new IT organization, all IT projects fell under our purview,” explains Azmi.

Like many of his private counterparts, he is responsible for the organization's overall IT efforts, including developing the IT strategic plan and operating budget, developing and maintaining the technology assets, and providing technical direction for the re-engineering of business processes.

“We are divided into four components: policy and planning, program/project management, technology/systems development, and operation/maintenance,” he said. This structure provides for end-to-end management of IT projects within the FBI and incorporates best practices for governing a large IT organization.

Under this centralized leadership, the FBI has taken a coordinated, strategic approach to IT that established an IT governance framework for managing IT projects at each stage of their "lifecycle" from planning and investment, through development and deployment, operation and maintenance, and disposal.

“We have transformed our business processes in an intelligent manner that allows us to improve IT management quality and incorporate new and innovative best practices in our work,” he explains. “Finally, we have stronger and more capable technological tools that enhance mission performance and enable the Bureau to work more effectively with our intelligence community (IC) and other law enforcement/national security entities.”

On the Road

The new emphasis on a proactive approach brought a renewed interest in mobile technologies and remote access. Recently the FBI completed the worldwide deployment of 19,500 BlackBerrys to enable agents and staff to function anywhere in the world. These devices allow FBI employee’s access not only to the internet, e-mail calendar and taskings, but also to “applications critical to our mission such as the no-fly list, missing and kidnapped persons, crime alerts, etc.”During the past year, the FBI has also proceeded with a large-scale installation of WAN accelerators. This technology is designed to provide optimal performance between a central site like a field office and a branch office. The WAN Accelerators provide performance enhancement by streamlining application protocols, reducing bandwidth requirements through caching and compression, and offloading functions from network servers. The accelerators are installed at each end of the link between the field office and resident agency. WAN Accelerators allow for greatly improved response time, at a reasonable cost, and the installation is transparent to the users, network servers, and equipment.

According to Azmi, the WAN Accelerator project is delivering the following benefits for the FBI:

  • Improved work experience for users, by reducing login and logout times, and reducing response time when working with documents permitting increased productivity for FBI personnel.
  • Circuits to branch office sites can be “right-sized” permitting bandwidth reductions that result in reduced monthly recurring costs.
  • Reduction of labor costs associated with performance issues, i.e., fewer trouble tickets.
  • These massive changes have been neither easy nor cheap. Despite common misconception, the government does not issue blank checks, not even to the FBI.

    “One of the more difficult aspects of the struggling economy has been that our budget and personnel resources have not increased commensurate with our important responsibilities,” bemoans Azmi. As a result, he and his team have worked towards maximizing efficiencies, through activities such as business process reengineering, prioritization of initiatives, and increased collaboration with intelligence and law enforcement partners.

    When he reflects over the changes in the FBI’s IT department over the past five years, he finds two areas most striking: “On an individual level the proliferation of handheld devices and wireless technologies have dominated and have changed users perception of the technology forever,” he said. “On an enterprise level, over the last few years, the FBI determined that it needed a service oriented architecture (SOA) to guide the modernization of its IT systems.”

    When he looks forward to the changes likely to come over the next five years, he sees all things mobile and remote. “Mobile IT tools allow FBI personnel to perform the collection, analysis, and dissemination of valuable intelligence information, and will be an indispensable technology for years to come,” he predicts.

    Azmi also sees the use of Web 2.0 as a key part of the FBI’s ongoing transformation to improve human capital performance by facilitating information sharing and collaboration. He said it will increase the volume and quality of raw and finished intelligence, the sharing of best practices, mentoring, and strengthen the role of knowledge in informing and driving operations.

    “The use of Web 2.0 could significantly alter the analytical, information sharing, administrative and knowledge transfer landscape of FBI business practices. These would focus on helping employees collaborate, exchange knowledge, find organizational resources, search for experts and corporate information, leverage business insights and existing tools and investments to make better-informed intelligence and knowledge sharing decisions,” he explains.

    Increasing the availability and sharing of explicit and tacit knowledge assets can have a significant ROI. Reducing the time spent by as little as 10 minutes a day with increased search efficiency and information availability could yield efficiency in labor costs to the organization resulting in tangible benefits.

    Although he didn’t mention the "Grid", the technology billed to replace the Web arising from the Internet’s hometown of Cern, Switzerland this summer, the moves toward SOA and Web 2.0 may be indicative of an eventual move beyond the land of routers, WAN optimizers, bandwidth concerns and even desktop storage issues.

    In any case, the Intelligence business has become infinitely more sophisticated and well, intelligent. And Azmi, like many of his peers, is proving to be the brainpower behind serious paradigm shifts in large organizations.