Top 5 government IT disasters besides

Top 5 government IT disasters besides

Summary: The government program generally known as Obamacare is the poster child for poor government IT work. There have been others though.


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  • When government IT goes bad

    You've read more than enough stories about and its disastrous rollout. We got to wondering about other government IT projects that went bad. There are quite a few, although none as famous because none affect so many individuals directly as

    In cases like these, you'll always find some management failure at behind it. In the case of, much has been made of the decision to have the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) manage the project directly and not to hire a general contractor with experience in large, complex system development.

    While some of the state exchanges have a good reputation, others are also, to put it kindly, underperforming. Cover Oregon has only just now claimed to have enrolled someone in a health care plan and the Director of the exchange has taken medical leave after a couple of months of rough political pressure.

    But didn't invent the government IT screwup: It has a long heritage, inside the USA and out. The pages to follow describe 5 other aggravating, money-wasting government IT projects that will live in infamy.

    Many thanks to Ed Bott and Steven J. Vaughan-Nichols for brainstorming on this.

  • EDA wrecking ball

    A report released earlier this year by the US Department of Commerce revealed how one US agency, fueled by the paranoia of a nation-state attack, spent US$2.7 million trying to destroy US$3 million worth of its own IT equipment, even though evidence of such an attack was never found.

    This odd decision came out of a miscommunication between the affected agency, the US Economic Development Administration (EDA), and the Department of Commerce's Computer Incident Response Team (DOC CIRT). DOC CIRT had determined that two components on EDA's network were infected with malware. EDA somehow got the idea that in fact 146 components were infected.

    EDA cut all their systems off of the networks. Confusion ensued about how widespread and sophisticated the infections on their systems were. Just to be thorough in the event that foreign infiltrators were working their way into the US Economic Development Administration, EDA's CIO ordered the destruction of all of EDA's IT components. This included printers, mice, keyboards, TVs and cameras.

  • Food stamp system goes down

    Only a few weeks ago Xerox, the operator of the Electronic Benefits System (EBT) was conducting a routine test of their backup systems. For reasons which aren't clear, this lead to the system shutting down for five hours.

    EBT is the system for food payments to beneficiaries of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) and Women, Infants and Children (WIC) program in 17 states. It's what is usually known as food stamps. Of course, they don't use stamps anymore, they use a special debit card.

    During the five hour outage merchants are supposed to use an emergency voucher system, but some merchants decided to just keep accepting the cards, which effectively no longer had limits on them. Some cardholders went on a shopping spree.

Topics: Government, Government US, Government UK

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  • And PRIVATE IT projects never fail?

    Contrary to what the anti-government people want you to believe, it is not only government projects that fail badly. Private companies have disasters also, but they are generally only known to the employees of those companies and the insiders in their industry. I worked on one in the 1980s in the trucking industry, and I remember many sleepless third shifts (AFTER working the first and second shifts) and shopping carts full of memory dumps. The company recovered, as the big ones usually do (having a big cash reserve forgives many errors), but not all of the employees' marriages did (I was lucky).

    The causes of IT failures include over-optimism, executive override of technical warnings (analogous to the Challenger disaster, and remember that was in the private company that built the hardware), miscommunication between teams, lack of prior planning (in one case, a holding company owned two subsidiaries with incompatible systems for ten years with no research done on "what if" they merged, then announced the merger and pushed it through in 18 months), mission creep (which may be MORE of a problem in the private sector, since requirements changes do not require changes to laws), and basic human ego, carelessness, impatience, etc.

    Certainly, government projects tend to fail bigger than private ones, and affect more people when they do. They are also, as I mentioned, harder to cover up, and more likely therefore to be widely known outside the specific industry involved. But the same political and individual failings are present in all human endeavors. Errare humanum est.
  • It's not only the USA

    The near total collapse this last weekend of a relatively new National Air Traffic Services system in the uk was "The fault occurred when the Nats computer system was making the switchover from the quieter night-time mode to the busier daytime setup." ! ??

    BBC news 7 December 2013
    Thousands of flights have been delayed due to problems at a key air traffic control centre in Swanwick, in Hampshire
    The facility, which handles 5,000 flights every 24 hours, was delayed even before it opened, eventually taking over operations in January 2002 - six years after its planned commissioning date.

    (Air traffic control system is 'not safe', say UK controllers | ZDNet)
    By Tom Espiner | March 2, 2011 -- 16:48 GMT
    Technology being introduced at one of the two major UK air traffic control hubs is "not fit for purpose" and did not adequately handle a breakdown in air traffic communications..
  • Procurement seems to be a common thread

    The process is in desperate need of reform, but it's not going to be at all easy, as there are too many vested interests (a relatively simple chain of command would probably be helpful). I don't think there's any excuse, however, for administrative functions to be outsourced either in government agencies or private enterprises (especially large corporations). It's reasonable to outsource designing and building new systems, but the people running and maintaining them should have their careers invested in the organizations they're serving, not outside firms.

    Unfortunately, transferring all government system administration and maintenance to civil service and military personnel would make life awkward in the short term for small government advocates in Congress, but it should be done anyway; government contractors don't show up in the official numbers (maybe they should), but it seems to me that "big government" manned by contractors is not any more virtuous or economical than "big government" manned by regular employees.
    John L. Ries
  • I wouldn't exactly call a disaster

    It took, what, about two months to shake off the bulk of its startup problems? For a project from scratch of this size, that's actually very, very good (go Google up "Microsoft 365 ongoing problems" or "Northrop Grumman Virginia problems" or "IBM Bridgestone".)
    • The ACA system is a disaster, but not for the reasons that you think

      The vision is bad, the marketplace could have been better, but this is certainly bad, and it could get really bad.

      1) Lack of transparency -> crashing from load. The politicians knew that the cost savings that the POTUS touted of $2500/family weren't gonna happen. The politicians did not want a singular journalists or researcher to have access to all of the data for all states, so they forced people to create accounts and start the sign-up process...just to browse. Most people went to browse and get an idea of what they would have to shell out if they are forced into the exchange and overloaded the new system and killed it. The HHS department has not and will not estimate and publish average/expected costs because the population won't stand for it. Now what will happen is journalists/researchers from all the states participating in the exchange will put data together on the side, and the facts will be swept under the carpet and called lies. This will further erode faith in the government system.

      2) Data security/integrity issue from the beginning due to a rushed project and requirement changes. As a part of the process of rolling the system out they granted themselves exceptions to government security standards. Some of the obvious holes have been closed...but not all. As a part of the 'fixes' some data was scrambled. Last statistics I saw is that about 80% of the applications went through to the insurance companies without errors, so that means there is a 20% error rate in the data handling/processing. That may be better now. But given the high-profile website that people put their SSNs into and all sorts of personal information this site will be owned by identity thieves....totally not cool. This could affect us all and force new multifactor identity systems to be put into place for us all as an unfunded government mandate which will have a financial domino effect to the cost of doing business.

      3) Requirements. What problem are we solving? Everyone focuses on the cost of health care, but this entire act is not focused on anything but the cost of insurance. We're not tackling the biggest part of the problem to begin fact we're making it much much worse. The cost of providing health care is skyrocketing and we're not making the health care system more efficient, or more effective. We're adding steps/processing/regulations like people without a plan on the end goal which should be reducing the overhead of providing health care and services. Now the doctors, nurses, and other professionals will have to hire more administrative staffing and fill out more paperwork to do the same things as before. We need to focus on enabling our health care professionals to be the most efficient/effective that they can possibly be. Let me put this another way, we can either cure the patients disease or treat the symptoms, and in this case we're only treating one set of symptoms and creating further complications that will require treatment as well. Fix the core issues with the high costs of health care and the prices will come down.

      The issues above are a pick list of a larger list that I have been considering for some time now.

      On the more positive side where one could make a lot of money is constructing a standardized, secure, durable, scalable, and cheap method for an adaptable multifactor authentication system for everyone in the US along with a distribution method. I'm sure there is a sales person out there that will love this plug. :)
  • These are not the biggest disasters

    The Queensland State Government's payroll system, where it contracted IBM, that is the biggest one. It got rolled out a few years ago with no roll back plan, took ages to fix the bugs, and the political fallout is still happening.

    The mucked up every phase of the project, and still went to implement it. So it'd have to 'win' on the number of bad decisions alone!

    It is the biggest one not just because of the cost of the project itself, but the consequences of its failure. This system would be the payroll tool for all departments, replacing the one each department had built itself. All employees were not paid properly - not just for one pay cycle, but every pay cycle for at least the first year. This meant bills didn't get paid properly, affecting business large and small throughout the entire state.
  • two more

    ln Ontario Canada the provincial government spent $billions to not have a functioning electronic health records system. California spent $billions to not have a state court house computer network.