Commerce finally rolls out financial management system

Millions of dollars and many false starts later, the Commerce Department said it is ready to roll out its financial management system departmentwide.

Commerce Secretary William Daley approved departmentwide deployment of the Commerce Administrative Management System, which has been under development since 1993. CAMS is intended to integrate the varied financial systems used by Commerce's bureaus into one consistent, unified system.

Using CAMS, Commerce hopes to capture more timely data for such applications as project management and payroll time and attendance. Managers will immediately match expenditures to their budgets.

CAMS will provide more effective cost allocation, purchasing and asset management that Commerce officials can use to capture lost revenue, reduce purchase prices and minimize operating, maintenance and upgrade costs.

Commerce spent almost $50 million from 1993 to 1997 on CAMS without ever deploying a working pilot of the system. Scott Gould, chief financial officer at Commerce, said in a recent memo that the plan to roll out CAMS at several bureaus at the same time resulted in "cost overruns, persistent delays and uneven quality."

Finally, Success

However, after scaling back the program late last year, the department successfully deployed CAMS on a pilot basis at the Census Bureau this summer. The system is based on commercial off-the-shelf software from Rel-Tek Systems & Design Inc., but it has been customized for Commerce and would require additional functionality for rollout on a departmentwide basis.

The projected 10-year full life-cycle cost of the deployment is about $250 million.

Nevertheless, Commerce decided that the best option was to deploy what is now dubbed Rel-Tek-based Core CAMS at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, followed by deployment at the National Institutes of Science and Technology, and to establish cross-servicing agreements via franchise funds for other bureaus.

This alternative "offers the optimal balance of cost, time and risk factors," Gould said in the memo. The option also includes building a corporate database into which all financial systems will feed data. This database will be used to generate the required consolidated financial reports for the department.

The Patent and Trademark Office, which already has developed its own financial management system through a cross-servicing agreement with the Interior Department, will not have to migrate to CAMS.

A Good Decision

Although it probably would have been easier to cancel the program, the decision to deploy CAMS to other bureaus is the right one, said Roger Baker, chief information officer at Commerce.

"[Gould] had a tough call," he said. "They pushed forward with an aggressive plan [at Census], defined the milestones and were able to meet those. A Booz-Allen & Hamilton [Inc.] study concluded that CAMS is at least the equivalent of any commercially available product out there from a functionality standpoint and is more flexible. As a result of the analysis...we've decided this is the way forward for the department."

Baker admits that there is still work to be done, but he does not think the earlier effort was in vain. "I don't think the $50 million was wasted, but I don't think it was optimally spent," he said.

The way government agencies traditionally procure financial management software takes substantially longer than in the private sector for a variety of reasons, said Karen Alderman, executive director of the Joint Financial Management Improvement Program, an interagency group that is working to improve the process by which commercial software is approved for sale to federal agencies.

"One of the issues is once you procure software and customize it and retest it, that lengthens the time for implementation," Alderman said. "That's why you want your requirements defined in advance."

In the private sector, it is more common to adapt business practices to the software, whereas government agencies are more apt to customize the software to specific business needs, Alderman said. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to rolling out financial management systems, she said, adding that she is not familiar with the approach Commerce is taking.

A source familiar with the department's approach said he expects Commerce has spent close to $100 million on CAMS development so far.

"I think [officials have] spent more than what they are revealing," the source said. "I think they felt they couldn't scrap the system and start all over because they [would] have Congress after them. I think they have lost some of their supporters and still have a ways to go to get people to adopt the system."

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