Watchdogs outline secrets of Sentinel success

The FBI has made impressive progressive in the past 18 months in modernizing and managing technology, but its flagship data management system, Sentinel, will require vigilance, watchdog experts told Congress Sept. 14.

The FBI launched a program earlier this year to develop Sentinel, after pulling the plug on the $170 million Virtual Case File management system. VCF, which was never deployed after ongoing cost and schedule overruns, was part of the FBI's Trilogy program to modernize the bureau’s obsolete computer systems.

But FBI officials could find themselves facing similar problems if they do not manage Sentinel closely, said Randolph Hite, director of information technology architecture and systems issues at the Government Accountability Office, speaking to the House Appropriations Committee’s Science, the Departments of State, Justice and Commerce and Related Agencies Subcommittee.

“It will be particularly important for the bureau to ensure that it follows the kind of acquisition management practices that our work has shown to be critical for commercial component-based systems to be successful,” Hite said. “If it does not, the FBI increases the likelihood that Sentinel will encounter the same cost, schedule and performance shortfalls as its predecessor, the Virtual Case File,” he said.

But the procurement is not the only challenge. FBI officials must be sure from the start that Sentinel fits with the bureau's new enterprise architecture. Before implementing the system, they must also explain to employees how Sentinel will change the way they work, Hite said.

One of the FBI's harshest critics, though, said the FBI has come a long way since VCF.

In a February audit, Glenn Fine, the Justice Department’s inspector general, blamed the program's meltdown on poor management and oversight, design modifications during the project, and bad IT investment practices.

But since then, Fine said at the hearing, the “FBI has instituted important [IT] investment management processes and management controls that it did not have when it attempted to complete” VCF.

On the technical side, the FBI has identified design requirements for Sentinel, and it is refining an enterprise architecture that Sentinel will follow, Fine said.

The bureau has a new management team in place, too. It has merged IT functions and management under chief information officer Zalmai Azmi, and it has borrowed Miodrag Lazarevich, a program management expert from the CIA, to be Sentinel’s program manager. The FBI is also creating a professional program management staff to keep Sentinel’s costs and management under control.

Sentinel must still overcome some serious challenges, such as fully staffing and organizing its program management office, Fine said. Another potential problem is that Lazarevich has only a two-year contract with a one-year option to renew, he said, which means the FBI may have to bring in someone else to finish the project.

Rapid turnover of critical management positions weakened the FBI’s ability to successfully complete Trilogy, Fine said. Between November 2001 and February 2005, the FBI had five CIOs and 10 top-level managers involved in Trilogy, he said.

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