EDITOR'S DESK: FBI IT foul-up: The case for oversight

Wyatt Kash

The reaction was swift and predictable when FBI director Robert Mueller delivered the grim news at a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing earlier this month that the agency's three-year, $170 million effort to build the highly touted Virtual Case File system now appears destined to be scrapped.

Frustration, disappointment and waste were among the kinder words used in reaction to the FBI's conclusions, and those of the Justice Department's inspector general in a report released in late December and first reported in GCN.

What's more troubling than the news itself, though, is how the agency got to this point. The VCF episode reflects a sad and familiar pattern, based on the IG's findings:
  • Ever-changing design specifications

  • Faulty management decisions early in the project

  • Inadequate project oversight and management continuity

  • A lack of sound IT investment practices.

That's not to mention the bureau's persistent state of denial. It was enough to prompt the committee chairman, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), to suggest that an independent executive team with IT expertise should oversee federal systems projects.

Plenty of precedent supports that idea. The IRS Oversight Board, for instance, has proven to be both a vital watchdog and voice of reason in keeping the IRS' Business Systems Modernization plans largely on track, if not on schedule.

The FBI's own Criminal Justice Information Services Division offers but one example where outside advisory boards have been instrumental in improving IT system development projects.

Whatever the model, one thing seems clear: Before the FBI moves forward on its plans to develop its new Federal Investigative Case Management System, with contracts expected to be finalized in April, it ought to also investigate securing a solid team of effective third-party advisers to join the squad.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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