IT turkeys: 7 government projects worthy of a roast

Every year before Thanksgiving, the president of the United States is presented with a turkey, which he then pardons in a good-humored show public of magnanimity (and then eats some other turkey on Thanksgiving Day, but that’s politics). The ceremony reminds us that, over the years, the American public has been gifted with its share of computer-based turkeys -- information technology projects gone wrong, often at spectacular expense.

Some of these projects have been unmitigated disasters, abandoned before the pop-up thermometer ever popped up, after years of work and millions, or even billions, of dollars. Others scuffled along for years -- frustrating department heads, Congress and regular users while keeping inspectors general and the Government Accountability Office fully employed – before coughing up some results.

We don’t claim that this is a comprehensive list of failures; nor do we say that all, or even most, government IT projects deserve a public roasting. After all, government IT efforts have produced significant achievements, such as a little thing named the Internet, and the Global Positioning System, which has given birth to countless weather and mapping systems while creating a world in which Real Men never have to ask for directions again. Every year, in fact, IT teams at government agencies deliver projects that are deservedly praised for their excellence. Those and many others are projects we can give thanks for.

Below, however, are seven projects that, in the spirit of the presidential Thanksgiving tradition, could use a little forgiveness.

FBI Virtual Case File (VCF) System

Started in June 2001 as a 36-month project to develop a system for tracking criminal cases, the FBI spent about $170 million over four years before concluding that VCF wasn’t going to work. Prime contractor SAIC blamed the bureau for hundreds of requirements changes during development. In 2005, VCF was replaced with Sentinel, a $451 million project to accomplish the same goal. According to a report this month from the Justice Department’s inspector general, completion of Sentinel, originally scheduled for December, has been pushed back to September 2010.

IRS Modernization

More than 20 years ago, the IRS launched its Business System Modernization program to replace its Master File system, parts of which dated to the Kennedy administration. By 1995, after eight years and $2 billion, the agency told Congress it had made only marginal improvements. In 1999, an IRS assistant commissioner speaking at the FOSE trade show called the modernization program a $3.3 billion failure, and said most of its technology did not work. At that point, the agency was already starting over with a $5 billion contract to CSC, awarded the previous December. The project has continued with a mix of progress and setbacks. The Customer Account Data Engine, for example – described by an official as “the centerpiece of our modernization efforts” -- began processing more than 25 percent of taxpayer returns in 2008. But by June 2009, IRS had halted CADE’s development. The saga continues.

Kinetic Energy Interceptor

The Obama administration moved in May 2009 to “terminate for convenience” the multibillion Kinetic Energy Interceptor program. The administration acted on advice from Defense Secretary Robert Gates that the antiballistic missile system program, as conceived, would not achieve its goal of destroying enemy missiles during the ascent phase of their flight. The government cited cost and technical hiccups and system malfunctions during testing. Prime contractor Northrop Grumman had invested $1.2 billion in the approximately $6 billion program before it got the axe.

Texas Eligibility Determination Contract

Privatization hit a brick wall in Texas when the Health and Human Services Department canceled a contract first valued at $899 million over five years with Accenture Ltd. in 2007. Accenture landed the contract in 2005, and was to determine eligibility and maintain an eligibility computer system, furnish call center services and provide enrollment broker services. Some of those functions had never been outsourced by the state before. Despite a scaling back of the project the following year – the contract was revalued at $543 million in December 2006 -- state officials still made a sour face at the performance results. The project was plagued by complaints of slow service and the denial of benefits to eligible recipients, and was abandoned in March 2007.

Mississippi tax system automation

American Management System Inc. (now part of Montreal-based CGI Group Inc.) narrowly averted financial disaster in 2000 when it settled a lawsuit with two Mississippi state agencies over a broken automated tax system. The initial $11.2 million contract called for AMS to deliver 36 applications, but after numerous schedule delays and technical glitches, the Mississippi State Tax Commission and Department of Information Services filed suit, alleging breach of contract and seeking nearly $1 billion in actual damages and punitive charges. In a settlement, AMS agreed to pay Mississippi $185 million over 13 years. AMS paid about $23.5 million, and its insurers paid the rest.

NMCI – the early years

When EDS Corp. won the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet contract in 1999, it was hailed as a landmark contract that would change the way the government managed its information technology. But EDS and the Navy quickly learned that they were overly ambitious. A series of unanticipated factors, such as vastly underestimating the number of applications the Navy was using, threatened to derail the project. The project became a drain on EDS’ profits and cost Chairman and Chief Executive Officer Dick Brown his job. Eventually, the ship was righted, but it is still unclear how the Navy, which now wants greater control, will replace the contract when it expires next year.

Secure Border Initiative-Network

Its final history is yet to be written, but the Secure Border Initiative-Network has not lived up to expectations. Its first section was plagued with software that didn’t work, construction delays and a lack of communication between prime contractor Boeing and the Border Patrol, the primary user of the system. SBInet is behind schedule and over budget, but the Homeland Security Department hasn’t lost faith, extending Boeing’s contract in September for another year.


About the Author

Kevin McCaney is a former editor of Defense Systems and GCN.


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