Watch your step: Can major efforts avoid more slipups?

Watch your step

The path to a successful IT project is strewn with potential pitfalls: budget cuts, new policy mandates and requirements changes -- to name a few. As agencies prepare for the new year, GCN looks ahead and identifies some possible perils as well as management and IT priorities expected for 2004.

'There are inherent risks, both financial and operational, when you undertake such projects.'

' FAA COO Russell Chew

Will 2004 be the year that some of the government's largest and most crucial IT modernization projects turn the corner toward success?

It's too early to tell if projects at the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection, Federal Aviation Administration and IRS will hit their stride next year or continue to draw heat for being poorly managed, technologically questionable and fiscally reckless'as all three have for more than a decade.

IRS chiefs will begin the year on the defensive. Just last week, a new report from the IRS Oversight Board noted that all seven major projects of the tax agency's Business Systems Modernization are behind schedule and over budget.

Tough talk

Independent assessments of the program 'make it clear that the IRS and its prime contractor cannot continue to operate in a business-as-usual manner,' the report said.

The board recommended that the IRS replace Computer Sciences Corp. as its modernization contractor if the company does not show significant improvement in its performance.

'Over time, the existing systems will become impossible to maintain and at that point, the ability to administer our country's tax system will be in grave danger,' said Larry Levitan, chairman of the board's Business Transformation Committee.

Over the past 12 years, the tax agency has spent nearly $4 billion on its modernization. At the centerpiece of the project is the Customer Account Data Engine. CADE will replace the tape-based Master File, home to all taxpayer records.

CADE is two years behind schedule. The IRS has delayed its rollout four times and now expects to spend $30 million more than originally planned. CIO Todd Grams said recently the agency is reviewing the effort and plans to deploy the first iteration sometime next year.

'CSC and the companies supporting the modernization are confident that we will successfully deliver CADE,' CSC spokesman James Sullivan said. 'We fully expect we will continue our efforts in close partnership with the IRS. We were given an action list of items, and we're delivering on that action list.'

At press time, the IRS was still reviewing the board's report and had no comment. With Grams on the job for less than six months, the agency has kept a low profile, rarely commenting publicly in recent months about its systems efforts.

But the IRS isn't alone in taking criticism from its overseers.

FAA took a hit in June from the Transportation Department's inspector general. The IG reported a $4.3 billion cost overrun in 20 of FAA's major projects, each of which faces delays of up to a year.

And the General Accounting Office has repeatedly rebuked Customs for its failure to use 'effective software acquisition processes' for its Automated Commercial Environment.

In a February report, GAO criticized the ACE team for making 'slow progress in implementing key acquisition processes.' And although test results from lead contractor IBM Corp. 'suggest the contractor is delivering a quality product,' the congressional auditors faulted Customs for failing to independently verify and validate IBM's work.

But that type of criticism shouldn't be surprising, said Jonathan Eunice, president of Illuminata Inc., an IT consulting firm in Nashua, N.H. Such massive projects come with unique obstacles.
'Incredibly big and complex systems like those at FAA or IRS are one-off processes,' Eunice said. 'Only the FAA can be the consumer for its product.'

'The safest air transportation system in the world is also doing things that no one's done before,' said Russell Chew, FAA's recently appointed chief operating officer. 'There are inherent risks, both financial and operational, when you undertake such projects.'

Chew last month announced sweeping changes in FAA's Air Traffic Organization, instituting performance metrics and scrapping a central IT acquisition office. The units that will use the systems will now buy them.

Over the next six months, managers will meet with each of ATO's nearly 25,000 Washington-area employees. The message, said Dennis DeGaetano, a 31-year FAA veteran and new vice president of acquisition and business services, 'is that we're going to be doing business differently than we have in the past, and we expect people to change.'

The Professional Airways Systems Specialists labor union pledged support for Chew. 'If he can realize his vision and make significant changes, it could be a new dawn,' said Michael Perrone, national vice president of PASS, which represents FAA IT workers.

The complexity of such projects threaten their success, Eunice said. 'It doesn't matter if it's Chase Manhattan or FAA, when you shoot for the moon, there's risk.'

Organizational changes also can complicate an already complex effort. Witness Customs: After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, officials shifted the direction of ACE, as Customs became part of the Homeland Security Department.

Budgeted at $1.7 billion, ACE will carry account and transaction import data for a daily volume of nearly 2 million passengers, aircraft, trucks, containers, vehicles, vessels and aircraft.

Customs has offered ACE to DHS as a common infrastructure for sharing data.

'It makes sense to use what has been developed through the ACE program wherever we can and not spend more money to reinvent the wheel,' said William Inch, acting deputy director of Customs' Modernization Office.

For many big projects, IT isn't the hurdle. Integration techniques allow use of plug-ins and modular development around a relational database or Web services.

'Process integration is where it gets dicey,' Eunice said. Although Customs and other agencies may need to share data and access to ACE, 'the cultures are different, and the requirements are different, even where processes overlap.'

Under control

Customs has some problems under control, including the software procurement process and failure to conduct independent verification, said Deborah Flickinger, director of program control in Customs' Modernization Office.

Mitre Corp. of Bedford, Mass., is conducting IV&V, and the projects new acquisition processes last month earned a passing grade from Carnegie Mellon University's Software Engineering Institute.

Meanwhile, the agency late last month launched the ACE secure data portal, a single online access point to connect Customs with the trade community and, eventually, other agencies. The Automated Truck Manifest will be ready by fall.

ACE still faces challenges, Inch acknowledged, 'but this is a major undertaking. I think we have a good government story to tell here, and 2004 is going to be a big year for us.'

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