Didn't they teach the feds how not to have a $170M IT failure?

Didn't they teach the feds how not to have a $170M IT failure?

Summary: Here's a story that slipped past my radar that's enough to make anyone sick, not just IT professionals.  The New York Times has a piece regarding the latest report to detail the FBI failures that allowed two of the Sept 11 hijackers to slip through its dragnet.

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TOPICS: Government US
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Here's a story that slipped past my radar that's enough to make anyone sick, not just IT professionals.  The New York Times has a piece regarding the latest report to detail the FBI failures that allowed two of the Sept 11 hijackers to slip through its dragnet.  This isn't the first time some of those stories have come to light. But the newly released report, which includes a significant number of redactions in the name of national security, apparently makes some new details public.  Further into the NYT story, however, came the IT-related item that escaped me when news of it first surfaced on May 24, 2005:

But in recent weeks, questions about the F.B.I.'s future have resurfaced, driven by mixed reports from outside groups about the bureau's success in reorganizing. Of particular concern are the F.B.I.'s difficulties in hiring and training terrorism analysts and in developing a modern computer software system to allow agents to search case files. The bureau scrapped a $170 million "virtual case file" system and announced a new plan this week.

Ahem.  A $170 million IT project got scrapped and nearly four years after the tragedy -- a period during which the best and brightest minds were supposed to be pulling our national security up by its britches -- they're starting over? (FBI Director Robert Mueller testified to this effect according to a Reuters story). And this wasn't on the front page of every IT publication and news site in the world?  Unless I'm mistaken, $170 million IT failures don't come along every day. OK, so there was also that $278 million (out of  $472 million) IT fiasco called CoreFLS at the Veterans Administration that was scrapped last July (strange, that didn't make front page news either).  Now, the VA wants $311 million more for another shot.  Seems almost like there's a pattern here (the Federal Government).  

What a nightmare.   A standard part of my computer science curriculum in the early 1980s was how not to end up with a failed IT project.  How is it that 20 years later, with so many taxpayer dollars and our national security at risk, these projects are falling flat on their faces.  By the way, this isn't just a condemnation of whoever is in charge of those projects.  It's a condemnation of this country's top IT companies as well.  They've got a stake in this country's future too, and they should be lending their very best engineers, project managers, and scientists to the government  -- on a full-time basis, free of charge -- until the Department of Homeland security has the sorts of systems in place that make the systems in the TV series 24 look old and slow.

[Editor's note: See Paul Murphy's take on what doomed the FBI project.]

Topic: Government US

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  • Ever worked a government job?

    David,

    A government cush job is the last refuge of the incompetent. Anytime you have an organization that promotes based on seniority and quotas rather than competence is doomed to be incompetence. When the CIO of a private organization screws up like this, they get fired. When it happens in the government, it?s no big deal since everyone is like that. You?ve got a culture of ?don?t rock the boat?. You?ve got an organization that doesn?t loose revenue because of incompetence; they gain revenue by drawing deeper and deeper on the tax payer?s pockets. No government organization ever looses its budget, and they?ll complain about a budget cut whenever they don?t get as big a boost as they would have liked. In the private sector, it?s routine to have your budget cut and still be expected to do more. If half your staff gets laid off, everyone else has to pick up the slack. This is an alien concept in the government.

    This is true of any government job.
    george_ou
    • Yes I have......

      There is the .5% of workers in the government who really do care. But I guess the other 99.5% don't.
      BXLE
    • government job

      Yes government is the antithesis of capitalism and greed. If we re-phrase your article, then what you are really saying is that govt employees work to shield themselves from the brutality of the outside world and tend to look out for each other. Too bad the corporate world isn't more like them huh?
      X41
    • Yes, but the people aren't the problem in this case.

      The problem with government IT purchases in general is that it's so very difficult to write the contracts for anything other than hardware. Depending on which government agency you're wokring for, it can take 18 pages of documentation and 15 or more signatures just to buy a desktop PC. Imagine how much more complex it gets when what you want is not something that is a concrete object.

      When you add in software that has to be written to order, the difficulty exponentially increases. This is exacerbated by the fact that the people making the contracts are not the same people that actually know what is wanted. The FBI's virtual case file is a prime example: Order hardware (easy), Get software(difficult). Especially since the requirements for the software were more than likely never actually finalized.


      [i]No government organization ever looses its budget, and they?ll complain about a budget cut whenever they don?t get as big a boost as they would have liked. In the private sector, it?s routine to have your budget cut and still be expected to do more.[/i]
      Not totally true. Examine the DOD budget from the late 1980's to present day, and you will see some actual budget cuts in there.

      As an aside to George, you should probably review the usage of 'loose' vs 'lose'.
      Letophoro
      • And according to what I read

        because of the situation you described they purchase hardware first, then start planning the software project, instead of planning the project and then buying appropriate hardware.
        ebrke
    • Complete and utter bullsh*t

      Nice stereotyping. I'm surprised you didn't accuse the Jews of being miserly with the funding, or maybe Mueller was distracted by his Aryan Nation activities (Mueller is a German surname, you know), or because some of the IT efforts took place in Louisiana and thus it HAD to be because those dumb rednecks suffer from an intelligence deficit. Those stereotypes are as idiotic and offensive as what you threw up here. Hell, if you're gonna do it, do it LARGE my man.

      Beyond the stereotyping, you're so off on the rest of your opinion that I had to check your name twice to make sure someone didn't register your screen name with just a slight spelling difference in order to bait flames. These ills are not the exclusive domain of govt - all the things you claimed happen in the private sector as well, but because of the setting and the impact it can have on the company's image, they're rarely reported. Don't be so naive.

      BTW - it's "lose", not "loose". You lose a job, but your dog is loose.

      While it is certainly true that there is a frustratingly low level of accountability for CERTAIN situations, CERTAIN positions, and CERTAIN agencies, you simply can not paint every government IT job with such a broad brush. You honestly believe that none of us have any ethical or business morals, take no satisfaction from performing our jobs properly, and have no skills? Give me a break.

      It seems to me that you harbor some deep seated resentment against civil service. That's fine, but why foist on us? I'm sure ZD provides you the opportunity to participate in their commentary because they thought you'd provide some professional expert advice when commenting on tech subjects. I've got a feeling they aren't particularly impressed with this effort.
      ejhonda
      • Probably true

        I suppose its not the fault of the worker bees - as their management tend to be political appointees of questionable ability - and even those are replaced on a regular basis from election "spoils".
        Roger Ramjet
    • I worked for the government

      Here's what I found:

      It takes a 2.0 (C) average to graduate from college. Where do the 2.0 graduates go to work? The government . . .
      Roger Ramjet
    • And the private sector has a 100% project success rate...

      ... because after massive layoffs, those who are left are ready, willing, and able to produce with perfect effectiveness. A far better result than more people would produce, because a full staff is not sufficiently terrorified.

      Interesting argument. Reads like utter crap, but who knows?!
      Anton Philidor
  • time for a new agency

    From the numbers mentioned in the story, they
    have scrapped like half a billion dollars worth
    of software, which would make a nice budget for a
    department run by a group who knows how to deal
    with software....They should be responsible for
    all the government's software, which hopefully
    would be completely different than anyone else's
    for security's sake. Let's give them a 300
    million dollar a year budget, develop a
    government OS and network. Just as we funded
    space flight in the 60's, and government findings
    and ingenuity found their way to the private
    sector, maybe these guys could finally come up
    with a way to build a secure network. I'm
    serious.
    pesky_z
  • Can you fix it?

    Try this - put a SunRay thin client on everyone's desk. Use SalesForce SOA-type software on a server box that the thin clients interface with. Spend the lion's share of money on integrating processes to work with the software. Done!
    Roger Ramjet
  • Interesting

    Interesting article about 11 Sep.


    Brian Williams,
    http://www.my-insurance-loans.com
    doproiu@...
  • Some of the commentary here amazes me

    I thought David Berlind's article made basic sense in that the issues he points at are both real and important.

    I do not think most of the comments (with minor exceptions) do. In particular running down all government workers as idiots is absurd and reflects badly on those wo do it -remember, when you point the finger at someone, you'll be pointing three fingers back at yourself.

    (George, you may have to try this to get it, so point a forefinger at the screen and look at your hand, see?).

    In this particular case the project was doomed from the beginning because they assumed they knew what the hardware would be, and so spent most of their money on PCs. That met a number of agendas, none of which had anything to do with the issue at hand: better information corelation among agents.

    Their second error also came from meeting other people's agendas instead of looking at the software needed to solve the problem. They tried to combine legacy MVS systems with new PC client-server systems using Oracle on Solaris -i.e. they tried to perpetuate existing ideas about document linkage and text search with newer technologies and then treated those technologies as if they amounted to a just a cheaper, faster, MVS/DB2 combination. Wrong solution, wrong problem interpretation, wrong people.

    Reader Roger Ramjet is right (I agree with him so often, I'm getting worried :)) a Sun Ray deployment solution would have been far better, but the key the solution is software, not hardware. I'll be blogging about this on Wednesday but, for now, let me point out that Sun has an advanced text search engine running in the labs, one that's almost exactly what the FBI needs -and which doesn't remotely use Oracle or require people who think Oracle makes sense for this application.
    murph_z
  • computer science

    What a nightmare. A standard part of my computer science curriculum in the early 1980s was how not to end up with a failed IT project. How is it that 20 years later, with so many taxpayer dollars and our national security at risk, these projects are falling flat on their faces.

    danni
    http://www.my-mortgage-loans.com
    doproiu@...
  • taxpayer

    What a nightmare. A standard part of my computer science curriculum in the early 1980s was how not to end up with a failed IT project. How is it that 20 years later, with so many taxpayer dollars and our national security at risk, these projects are falling flat on their faces.

    danni
    http://www.my-insurance-loans.com
    doproiu@...
  • VA wants $311 million more?

    I don't believe you read back far enough. The VA is trying to recover $117 million of the monies lost to BearingPoint at Bay Pines Medical Center and is seeking legal recourse on a botched job.
    I sure glad I don't work for CoreFLS!

    A US Veteran
    WPSHEARN