Is government 'computer chaos' over?

While looking through some old files recently, I came across a report addressing federal agencies' problems with developing large computer projects. The report—"Computer Chaos: Billions Wasted Buying Federal Computer Systems," which was investigated by William Cohen, now the secretary of Defense but then a senator and member of the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee—was released Oct. 12, 1994, exactly five years ago last week. I thought it would be a good time to ask the following question: Has the government emerged from its computer chaos?

The computer chaos report summarized reviews conducted by the General Accounting Office and agency inspectors general regarding major government software development and systems integration efforts then in progress. The report identified several large-scale modernization efforts as particularly problematic, including Internal Revenue Service tax systems modernization, the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control system, the National Weather Service's Advanced Weather Interactive Processing System (AWIPS) and the Defense Department's automated accounting systems. The report did not examine acquisitions of commercial off-the-shelf information technology products.

The report concluded that:* "Antiquated and inefficient computer systems cost the government billions" of dollars.* "Computer modernization efforts have failed."* "Government planning efforts are inadequate." * "The computer buying process condemns the government to pay more for less."To avoid these problems, the report recommended that agencies should emphasize early oversight and planning, avoid reinventing existing technology and size projects to manageable levels, among other things.

The report also stated that all major systems acquisitions should be halted until the acquisitions could be reviewed with these goals in mind.

Shortly after the report was issued, its author proposed what became the Information Technology Management Reform Act, later renamed the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, to improve the problems cited in the report.How have things changed since then? According to recent GAO studies, the IRS has restructured its tax systems modernization effort into a phased approach. However, the early phases still will not provide required capabilities, and "the target system overall is a long-term solution [that] likely will not be fully implemented for over a decade." (See GAO/AIMD-99-16.)

Regarding the air traffic control system, the GAO recently reported that "FAA's internal evaluations and GAO's reviews have identified shortcomings in FAA's current process used to manage its investments in validating and prioritizing mission needs analyses, in establishing and monitoring baseline measurements for all projects and in communicating and coordinating among cross-functional teams." (See GAO/RCED-99-25.)

According to the GAO, NWS' AWIPS has continued to experience delays, cost overruns and performance problems. Moreover, "as more sites come online, problems can be expected to increase." (See GAO/T-AIMD/GGD-99-97, Feb. 24.)

As for DOD's automated accounting systems, according to the DOD Office of the Inspector General's congressional testimony, as of mid-1999, DOD's accounting systems still could not produce financial statements that could be audited. According to the GAO, DOD's effort to replace the outdated systems "is plagued with poor management controls and too little assurance that the investment will achieve the department's technology objectives." (See GAO/HR-99-1, Jan. 1.)

Bigger problems have been found in other, more recent DOD programs. The Office of Inspector General said that DOD's efforts to produce its automated Standard Procurement System has not meet critical functional requirements. Moreover, DOD purchased insufficient software licenses, requiring it to buy support on a sole-source basis over the entire 30-year system life cycle. Also, users are given inadequate training and support from the contractor help desk. (See DOD Audit Report No. 99-166, May 26.)

GAO has found even more problems in another new DOD program for the development of a computer-based civilian personnel system. GAO specifically found that DOD "did not adequately apply the three requirements of the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, which are designed to maximize the value of major investments." (See GAO/AIMD-99-20, Jan. 27.)

Two important conclusions can be drawn from these observations. First, the computer chaos report illustrates just how hard it can be to predict the future. The two biggest issues of the past five years have been the Year 2000 problem and computer security. The computer chaos report did not contain a single word on either issue.

Second, large-scale software development efforts remain difficult. Today, there are at least as many reports from GAO and agency inspectors general about problems with IT modernization efforts as there were when the computer chaos report was written.

If there is a simple solution to these problems, agencies haven't found it yet.

--Peckinpaugh is a member of the government contracts section of the law firm Winston & Strawn, Washington, D.C. This column addresses legal topics that arise in government acquisition and management of ADP resources. Readers are encouraged to submit topics by e-mail to carl@carl.com.

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