Why Government IT Fails and How To Fix It

Introduction

Government IT faces many problems, some are tough to solve but many are caused by fixable project management errors. I have identified four key project management errors faced by many government IT projects. In my research, I looked at how these problem areas appeared in three government IT projects. Here, I will look at how these problems caused the demise of the FBI Virtual Case File (VCF) system. The FBI created the VCF system to replace their outdated paper and computer systems. However, the project ultimately failed, costing the FBI significant resources and lost productivity.
VCF System Timeline (Marchewka 9)

Undefined Requirements

Matthew Patton, a member of the VCF contractor design team (Goldstein 31)
“They were trying to design the system layout and then the whole application logic before they had actually even figured out what they wanted the system to do” (qtd. in Marchewka 5).

My Recommendation:

Early, clear requirements are necessary for a project’s success. These requirements must show what a system should do, not just how it should look. In addition, legislators and government leaders should play a part in designing the high level requirements just as they provide input into other non-IT government projects.

Late Requirements Changes

Harry Goldstein
“After the eight [VCF contractor development] teams had completed about 25 percent of the VCF, the FBI wanted a "page crumb" capability added to all the screens.... This navigation device gives users a list of URL's identifying the path taken through the VCF to arrive at the current screen." This change forced the development teams to retroactively change the VCF system individually, each team implementing the change slightly differently on their part of the system (Goldstein 32-33).
"It wasn't long before the change requests started rolling in, roughly 400 from December 2000 to December 2003 according to SAIC [the developers]" (Goldstein 32). As seen in the figure, Congressional appropriations allowed for late development changes. These changes did not further the development of core system functions. Instead, they bloated an already massive project, preoccupying the FBI with non-essential functions. [Fig. based on (Marchewka 1-8)]

My Recommendation:

Both developers and leaders must carefully guard against nonexistent change control and the parallel problem of late requirements changes. Although government politics may dictate problematic timelines, leaders and designers should realize the impossibility of creating a large, interconnected system within budget with late changes to design requirements.

Contractors

Matthew Patton, a member of the VCF contractor design team (Goldstein 31)
“The company’s [SAIC] attitude was that it’s other people’s money, so they’ll burn it every which way they want to” (qtd. in Marchewka 5).
Sherry Higgins, a VCF project manager (Goldstein 29)
Agents reviewing VCF system development would work over hours finding bugs and system improvements “and in the next iteration their comments wouldn't be taken into account” (Goldstein 33).

My Recommendation:

Contractors should be seen as people who work on a project, not as people who manage a project. Even though government may not currently have the talent necessary, internal workers must still play a significant part in planning and designing government projects. Left to contractors who do not understand government needs, a project will probably diverge from the original intent.

Lack of Internal IT

Robert S. Muller, then director of the FBI
“Recognizing our internal limitations, we decided to outsource the development of VCF, including contract management and technology development” (Mueller 2).
Matthew Patton, a member of the VCF contractor design team
In an open letter trying to gain attention for the VCF system failures, Matthew Patton said, “They [the FBI] don't know enough to even comment on a bad idea, let alone tear it apart.... As a two-bit journeyman I can't seem to get anyone to pay the slightest attention, nor do they apparently (want to) understand just how flawed the whole design is from the get-go” (qtd. Goldstein in 32).

My Recommendation:

Government needs more IT talent. Governments must realize the importance of their IT systems and make their projects inviting for top IT talent. Few of these recommendations will work without experienced IT workers to implement them. Despite the current talent deficit, government IT has the potential to attract the best workers because of its ability to significantly affect people’s lives. If government makes IT a priority, not only government but also the way people fundamentally interact with government can be transformed.

My Reflection

Professor Reflection

Research Paper

Citations

Goldstein, Harry. "Who Killed the Virtual Case File?" IEEE Spectrum 42.9 (2005): 24- 35. Print.

Marchewka, Jack T. "The FBI Virtual Case File: A Case Study." Communications of the IIMA 10.2 (2010): 1-13. ProQuest. Web. 5 Nov. 2013.

Muller, Robert, "Testimony on FBI's Virtual Case File System." Washington, DC. Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, State and the Judiciary. 03 February 2005. Testimony.