Editorial: Program management, again

Customer demands for convenience and speed in accessing information and making personal business transactions have driven businesses to provide Web services. But officials at the Federal Retirement Thrift Investment Board apparently forgot that goal when developing the Thrift Savings Plan's online system for federal employees to manage their retirement accounts.

When the system was launched this month, it immediately ran into trouble, becoming overloaded while thousands of federal employees sat frustrated in front of computer screens, unable to access their accounts. Feds were steamed, complaining that the system was "worthless," and calling for the firing of investment board members.

In its defense, the board fixed many of the access problems within a week. In addition, the project's development has been marked by acrimony between the investment board and American Management Systems Inc., which won the contract in 1997 to develop the system.

After numerous delays and budget overruns, the board fired AMS in 2001, then accused it of breach of contract, suing for $50 million in actual damages and $300 million in punitive damages. This month, AMS officials, who have claimed that the board's unrealistic requests spurred many of the problems with the TSP system's development, settled the suit by paying the board $5 million.

Still, the issues between the investment board and AMS, as well as the system's rocky launch, illustrate the fundamental troubles facing government information technology program management. In government, delayed, poor-performing systems are the norm, not the exception.

The TSP experience underscores the need for more programmatic training — and training private contractors on how to deal with feds. It needs to be a team approach. Everyone has agreed that what is needed is better program management skills, including how to better involve vendors and set up innovative procurement ideas. When agency officials pursue skills training as hard as other business processes, perhaps government will have fewer experiences like the TSP debacle.

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