National IT Guard Idea Will Take Time

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Attention Information Technology workers: Uncle Sam will eventually want you to volunteer for the National IT Guard included in the landmark Department of Homeland Security bill that is now law.

But first, Uncle Sam needs you to wait while the whole thing is organized, which includes merging and reorganizing no less than 22 federal agencies and 170,000 employees in the new cabinet-level federal department. And that will take some time, by some estimates, possibly another year before volunteer IT workers could be organized into the concept of a National IT Guard.

"We ask that people be a little patient," said Carol Guthrie a spokesperson for Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.), one of the main sponsors of the National IT Guard legislation, which has sparked a flurry of inquiries from IT executives about how to volunteer.

Called the Science and Technology Emergency Mobilization Act, or NET Guard Act, the bill was included in the Homeland Security legislation that President George W. Bush signed into law on November 25th. The department has a budget of $37.4 billion, including $2.12 billion for IT measures alone.

The NET Guard portion calls for the formation of a National Emergency Technology (NET) Guard, a group of technology volunteers at the ready to help restore communications and technology in the event of a terrorist attack.

Before anyone can volunteer to become a part of the NET Guard, the Department of Homeland Security has to be organized, and that process has just begun. Eventually, the department will be organized into four divisions: Border and Transportation Security Emergency Preparedness and Response, Chemical, Biological, Radiological, and Nuclear Countermeasures, and Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection. It is still unclear which division would coordinate the NET Guard effort of organizing technology volunteers.

Within those divisions at least eleven separate offices are to be created, and staffed with officers such as Deputy Secretary of Homeland Security and Under Secretary of Information Analysis and Infrastructure.

The massive job of creating the new department may explain why some technology experts are somewhat skeptical of the NET Guard idea, even though they laud the effort for organizing a rapid response, tech-savvy team of volunteers.

Michael Drapkin, the founder and CEO of IT consultancy Drapkin Technology, said he was glad to see the NET Guard provision included in the homeland defense bill. But he also questioned whether a true National IT Guard could be effectively organized, especially after his experience mobilizing IT volunteers to help businesses impacted by Sept. 11.

"One of the lessons we learned with our World Trade Center IT Mobilization Consortium was that very few firms are interested in taking advantage of those free services, even those with severe disasters. The big firms mostly had disaster recovery plans in place, and the smaller ones that didn't merely ceased to exist," he said. Drapkin called NET Guard "a good idea on first viewing, but at the end of the day it will bring little or no benefit. Firms really only want one thing (during a disaster) -- cold hard cash."

The bill offers none of that. Indeed, grants are out of the final bill. A $35 million appropriation that the Senate had approved for pilot programs to promote interoperability of communications systems among emergency response groups was not approved in the final measure of the legislation.

But the Homeland Defense legislation does includes the creation of a technology clearing house whose function would be to help the public find the right department within the department to reach out to with volunteers of technology expertise.

"NET guard is about (organizing) people and equipment," Guthrie said. "The clearing house is about ideas and development. It's the idea of providing a portal for the public sector to bring ideas and expertise to the government." And it could be an informational service to steer volunteers to the right federal agency.

Where the technology clearing house is organized depends on how the Dept. of Homeland Security itself is organized, and it's safe to assume that much tweaking awaits the actual process of organizing the new department.

Still, with all the work yet to be done before IT volunteers can put their services to work, Guthrie said getting the NET Guard bill included was critical to Sen. Wyden's proposal to bring private sector technology experts into the process. "It's an idea close to his heart. He really believes it will be effective in improving security for the country."

And after all, the new law calls for the department to not only focus the resources of the federal government, state and local governments, but those of the private sector and the American people in order to accomplish its mission of protecting the country from, or responding to, terrorist attacks.