Burns takes on BIA problems in stride
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The first question most people ask Brian Burns is not about his background in federal government. The answer is impressive enough -- at the Department of Health and Human Services, he oversaw a computer $3.5 billion budget, more funds than the entire Bureau of Indian Affairs has ever seen.

It's not about his private sector experience, either. He spent a dozen or so years in the commercial world after receiving his education in computer related fields, for those who want to know.

No, the first question is: Are you crazy?

Fortunately, the BIA's new chief information officer has a response.

"It looked like a good opportunity for me to come into the Department of Interior," Burns said in a recent interview, "and try to look at how we can better run things."

And no, he's not crazy. (At least not yet.)

Hired this past June in the midst of one of the largest scandals in U.S. history, the simplistic answer seems to defy reality. Last December, the Interior's computer systems were shut down because court-supervised hackers were able to break into the trust fund accounts of more than 300,000 American Indians.

The security vulnerabilities -- known for years but uncorrected -- put millions of dollars in Indian money at risk. They also were a huge embarrassment for the Bush administration and the Interior has yet to recover fully, although about 90 percent of their systems are up and running again.

Still, the daunting task doesn't deter Burns. "I'm determined, obviously," he said. "I came here to fix a computer problem."

Security is just one of many Burns intends to tackle as Assistant Secretary Neal McCaleb's top information technology aide. In addition to erecting TrustNet, a computer network system designed to protect Indian assets, he is out to bring "discipline" to his organization, cut costs and provide a much needed "technology injection" to the BIA.

"This is not for the faint of heart," he admits.

Although he has nearly 20 years of experience, Burns believes his years with the Indian Health Service (IHS) are the most relevant. He's already dealt with many of the same issues -- remote access, limited infrastructure and funding constraints -- that face the BIA.

"They have to get the job done," he said of his former agency. "They're the front line."

He intends to apply a similar strategy at his new post. He's already visited some area and agency offices and plans to work more closely with the IT staff throughout BIA's 12 regions in order to improve services.

"I'm going to get out there as much as I can," he promises. His predecessor was criticized by subordinates for not enough of the same.

What Burns doesn't have yet is a plan, at least a public one, to get it all done. "We are moving as rapidly as we can," he says when asked to give a status update on efforts to fix the BIA's computer breaches.

Similarly, he can't discuss how much money will be spent to bring the BIA into the 21st century. Along with other officials, he is in the midst of intense budget talks to finalize spending for the upcoming years.

"It's going to cost a significant amount to do it," he says when pressed about the funding levels.

He can't say for sure what is happening to the $40 million Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) that has been the bane of local BIA officials for years. The BIA, with the help of management consulting firm EDS, is examining the "business processes" of Indian trust, an effort that is months away from completion, he noted.

"It's ultimately the information we have to protect," he summarizes.

He also doesn't immediately employ the buzzwords many tribal leaders want to hear when they encounter a BIA officials. Enterprise licensing, leverage and outsourcing are more his vocabulary than consultation, sovereignty and self-determination.

But what he lacks in specifics, Burns makes up for in enthusiasm. He envisions a future where IT not only enhances the BIA but also Indian Country.

"You have the opportunity of exposing the communities to other peoples outside the reservation," he said. "It's not erosion of the community, it's exposure and also economic growth."

So while McCaleb is focused on increasing economic opportunities through energy development, capital investment and good tribal government, Burns plans to complement the effort in his own way. "I'm just a tech geek," he said.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Trust Reform, NCAI -

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