Procurement

Why the $300 million software project needs to go extinct

Can agile and open-source methodology make large-scale software acquisitions a thing of the past? Social Security Administration CIO Robert Klopp thinks so.

"Imagine if by using open-source software and agile, the world changes so that there's no such thing in the government as $300 million software projects anymore," he said at the Association of Government Accountants' Financial Systems Summit on Jan. 19.

His views are driven by experience. "We're currently in the middle of a project where we've already spent $350 million, and for a variety of technical reasons, we started all over again from scratch," he said.

Now, using open-source code and agile design methodology, SSA officials are hoping to complete the project for a tenth of the failed work's cost -- about $30 million -- and in one year instead of the planned seven.

"The reality is it should have only been $10 or $15 million, but we inherited some fat" from previous activities, Klopp said.

He declined to name the project. FCW has previously covered the failure of the Disability Case Processing System project, which had spent more than $300 million in six years when SSA restarted it in 2014 -- a potential candidate for Klopp's mystery procurement.

He said he is also seeing commercial and government data demands catch up to SSA's needs. The agency dealt with big data before the phrase was a buzzword, and in the 1960s and 1970s, standard commercial offerings couldn't keep pace with the agency's data needs, he added.

"When we pushed IBM, really with every release of a new kind of mainframe, we would break it because the problem we had was so much bigger than what anybody else had," he said. "Today, not so much."

For those worried about cloud security, Klopp had this to say: "If SSA gets hacked, I lose my job. If [cloud computing giant] Amazon gets hacked, [CEO Jeff] Bezos loses $40 billion. Who has the bigger incentive?"

Michelle King, SSA's deputy commissioner for budget, finance, quality and management, said transforming the agency's approach to IT investments is on its list of eight critical priorities. Those priorities are being reviewed at least once per quarter, she added.

SSA has had an IT investment review board for years, but Klopp said the process was painful and not well designed, so the agency is revamping it.

As it attempts to take full advantage of modern technology, SSA is carefully reviewing every IT program it has. "The focus is no longer just on the special projects," King said.

Klopp warned that if agencies fail to stay abreast of current technology developments, they could face irrelevance -- or become "utterly ridiculous."

About the Author

Zach Noble is a former FCW staff writer.

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