Three Big Government IT Projects That Struggled

By CIOinsight  |  Posted 10-20-2006

Reporting on government IT projects can take on a depressing sameness, because big problems with big projects are distressingly common at federal agencies. The same problems that inspired federal legislation in 1996 draw Congressional ire today. Why? Everything is blamed, from politics to funding and bidding rules, along with a lack of accountability for failure and a mega-project mindset.

No job has been more vexed than the seemingly endless modernization program at the Federal Aviation Administration. A 2002 report in Baseline magazine spotlighted the Advanced Automation System, "which aimed to replace at one stroke several key computer and display systems, including the core mainframe architecture and the display screens that show controllers the planes in a given sector. That project cost more than $2.6 billion before the plug was pulled in 1994. By comparison, the Hoover Dam cost just $2.1 billion in today's dollars. The GAO estimates $1.5 billion of the $2.6 billion was completely wasted, meaning none of the work could be salvaged."

For more on government IT, read Case Study: Borderline Success at the Department of Homeland Security

Last year, a release from the U.S. House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure said: "Modernization has ballooned into $35 billion enterprise that is still years away from completion."

Then there was the big paperless push in the late 1990s at the Internal Revenue Service. Hundreds of millions of dollars a year were spent toward an electronic tax-filing goal that the system's design made impossible. The IRS had trouble finding a CIO to work for government wages that probably ran one-tenth of a private-industry salary, and Congress didn't want to be seen as making tax collectors too efficient. This one had happier results: The project was subsequently relaunched, and substantial progress has been made, at the cost of another decade and another $7 billion.

Smaller examples abound. Last year, CIO Insight reported on an FBI case-file automation project that was years overdue, and nine digits past its original budget; the nearly $170 million project was eventually abandoned altogether. And so on…

The GAO has singled out some 300 federal projects, or about 30 percent of current large government IT jobs, as being in trouble on planning and/or performance. The attention from the watchdogs is a good thing, of course, but it also has a familiar ring: Problems with earlier systems helped bring about the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996, federal legislation to improve the process. And that has brought us to this very familiar-looking place, making adoption of the phased development model used for US-VISIT that much more attractive.