Cold case

Zalmai Azmi is the fifth CIO at the FBI in as many years'a period marked by the bureau's failed effort to modernize case management.

Henrik G. de Gyor

With its Virtual Case File possibly DOA, the FBI must figure out how to modernize case management without repeating its earlier mistakes

The collapse of the FBI's Virtual Case File project leaves the bureau facing complex choices about how to modernize case management for its workers and how to quell skeptics who question whether the bureau can avoid making the same management missteps.

Over the last five years, the FBI appears to have wasted $104 million on a system that it may never use'a loss that FBI director Robert S. Mueller III acquiesced to last month during a grilling on Capitol Hill.

The botched project has provoked lawmakers to question whether poor IT management is a problem stretching beyond the Hoover building.

'This could be a systemic issue across agencies,' Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said.

It was at a hearing of Gregg's Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary that Mueller and others testified about how the VCF project careened off course [www.gcn.com, GCN.com/380].

'Maybe we should have an independent executive team with expertise [to oversee systems projects] that is consistent and technologically current,' Gregg suggested, saying he intended to broach the idea with his fellow lawmakers.

The cause for the VCF project's failure, as determined by the Justice Department inspector general and independent auditors: inadequate project oversight, poor investment planning and scope creep.

Endless changes made by the FBI, however, are what ultimately hamstrung the program. The project's contractor, Science Applications International Corp. of San Diego, documented the requirements requests from the bureau. In one 18-month period, the FBI requested 399 requirement changes.

Plus, there has been continuous turnover in senior IT management during the course of the project. There have been five CIOs since the FBI began work on VCF.

So what are the bureau's options?

It could continue its development of the problem-plagued VCF, which senior FBI officials have characterized as outmoded but SAIC contends can be ready for use by year's end.

Alternatively, the FBI could field an online version of its decades-old Automated Case Support (ACS) system, the application it had pegged VCF to replace.

Or it could wait to join in the fledgling Federal Investigative Case Management System program. This joint law enforcement endeavor calls for the creation of a governmentwide system built on commercial case management tools.

As they spend the next few months deciding how to proceed, FBI officials said they would figure out how to incorporate what they have learned from their missteps on VCF into future case management efforts.

From a technical perspective, they said, the project requires an enterprise architecture, stable project requirements and stringent security measures.

As to project management, the bureau plans to centralize oversight, abandon uncontrollable cost-plus-award-fee contracting methods, set earned-value metrics and use schedule management tools. Mueller and CIO Zalmai Azmi plan to evaluate the results of a VCF pilot. About 500 users in New Orleans and Washington are running an initial version of the VCF applications.

Mueller promised to report back to Congress this spring on the pilot, which the FBI characterized as testing a VCF version comprising one-tenth of the capabilities the bureau expected from SAIC. Lawmakers asked the FBI director to be prepared to tell them, based on the pilot's results, whether the bureau should expand VCF use, make additional changes or abandon the project as the Justice IG recommended [www.GCN.com/381].

SAIC executives said the pilot will prove that VCF is viable and that the FBI should approve an expanded version for testing before rolling out a full-scale case management system by January [www.GCN.com/382].

Right now, the system provides only workflow management for users. Several other functions'including document, evidence and lead management, and a tickler file'can be ready for testing shortly, said Mark Hughes, president of SAIC's system and network solutions group.
But Mueller rejected the SAIC proposal during his testimony to Gregg, saying the flaws in the VCF pilot version will force bureau officials to seek out more modern alternatives.

FBI officials also said SAIC has not completed plans for converting flat files in the bureau's ACS system to VCF's Oracle Corp. database. Now, the pilot provides a middleware link between the two systems.

As the FBI sees it, the bureau would have to maintain ACS because the security algorithms for the links are built into the Adabase database management system underlying the ACS mainframe applications.

Rather than proceed with VCF, the FBI could opt to replace ACS with commercial case management software. The packages on the market have outpaced VCF, FBI officials said, and the bureau now is evaluating some of these newer plug-and-play technologies.

The FBI also could live with its older system by expanding use of a fairly new, browser-friendly front end to ACS, the Web-Enabled Automated Case File System.

WACS has been available for about two years, and hundreds of FBI employees have access to it. Although WACS lacks the automated workflow function that the VCF pilot provides, it is an improvement on ACS' green-screen user interface.

The final alternative is to wait on development of the inter-agency project, the Federal Investigative Case Management System. But FICMS' launch is not expected for at least three years.

To make the right choice requires that the FBI retrace its steps, learn from its mistakes and not repeat them. One sure lesson it has learned is that it must not keep changing requirements.
Mueller in his Senate testimony described how the bureau and SAIC were negotiating contract changes as late as last summer.

SAIC's executive vice president Robert Punaro told the subcommittee: 'The agents would look at the development product and reject it. They would then demand more changes to the design in a trial-and-error, we'll-know-it-when-we-see-it approach to development.'

Steve Kelman, a former administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, said the FBI's modifications of the requirements doomed the project.

'If you can't establish a baseline, you will never finish the project,' said Kelman, the Weatherhead Professor of Public Management at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government.

'This is something that [FBI managers] should have known,' he added. 'This had been a widely discussed lesson learned from previous major project failures like the Federal Aviation Administration's air traffic control modernization. They never stabilized their requirements.'

Randolph C. Hite, director of IT architecture and systems issues for the Government Accountability Office, said GAO's auditors had noted the bureau's need to set firm specifications.

'It all starts with requirements, with understanding what you need and what performance you need,' Hite said. 'If you are telling a builder to build a house and don't know your requirements, you shouldn't be surprised if you don't get the house you are looking for.'

Perhaps a larger lesson for federal leaders, however, is the need to pay attention when the builders keep changing as well.

In reports over the past few years, GAO cited concerns about the rapid turnover in CIOs during the period when the bureau developed VCF. Repeated changes in the command clearly compounded the problem and escalation of additional systems requirements.

In the mid-1990s, the bureau's deputy director also served as its CIO, overseeing the bureau's IRM Office.

When the project began, IRM director Mark Tanner played a key role in getting it off the ground. In 2000, bureau officials recruited retired IBM Corp. executive Robert Dies as CIO.

But Dies retired in 2002. Tanner then served as acting CIO until July 2002, when Darwin John joined the bureau as CIO. But John retired in May 2003.

At that time, officials said the FBI's executive assistant director for administration, Wilson Lowery, sought a more aggressive approach to upgrading the bureau's systems.

Lowery became acting CIO when John left and held the job until January 2004, when the FBI made Azmi acting CIO. Azmi took over officially five months later.

Now, Mueller and Azmi have shaken up the bureau's IT infrastructure again in a bid to stabilize development. The most recent changes include centralizing project control within the CIO's office, mandating IT investment reviews and seeking to bring industry leaders on staff. They cautioned that the reforms will take time to kick in.

Despite his contention to lawmakers that the absence of a modernized case management system has not prevented the FBI from fulfilling its counterterrorism, intelligence and law enforcement missions, the collapse of the project clearly irritates the nation's top cop.

'What the agent on the street does not have is a user-friendly format for inputting investigative and intelligence information into his or her computer,' Mueller said at last month's Senate hearing. 'Instead, the agent faces a cumbersome, time-consuming process of preparing a paper record of that information, seeking the necessary ap-provals, then uploading the document into an existing database.

'If agents had the VCF capabilities we envisioned, they could directly input information into their computers, receive electronic approvals, and, with the push of a button, upload information into the database, where it would be immediately available to others who need access to it'agents, analysts, other federal employees, state and local officials.'

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