09 June 2005

On Modernizing the FBI

Posted by Jameson Penn

[T]he Virtual Case File system suffered from having to adapt to the FBI's dramatic post-9/11 mission change, which called upon the bureau to focus on preventing terrorism as much as fighting more conventional crimes. Yet the technology also fell victim to much more workaday problems, including a shuffling of FBI CIOs and project managers, ever-changing project requirements, and an insistence on building the system from the ground up as a customized application. The result was a $170 million bust that the bureau tested briefly, then put on the shelf indefinitely.

When it comes to completing an objective, I have found that it is sometimes best to take action before the planning phase has been completed. Of course, this depends on the complexity of the project as well as the parties involved. But in many cases it is easier to alter or undo something than to never have an idea leave the ground.

From what I have read about the FBI’s general practice, it does not surprise me that such an ambitious project as the Virtual Case File System experienced the outcome it did. Admittedly, it is an unfair expectation to demand that the FBI not allow ever-changing requirements on projects such as the now-defunct Virtual Case File. However, it is how those changes are integrated and consequently applied to the on-going project that makes the difference.

I’m sure that politics play a large role in how the FBI operates, particularly on the IT management level, as evidenced by the constant game of musical chairs they seem to play. But isn’t anyone running a calculator as the costs of scrapping various projects for new ones are ticking off?

The question remains: what motivated the decision-makers to opt for a new costly system rather than fix the replacement for the previous legacy system (RIP, Automated Case Management System)? Given that the FBI’s IT budget has grown from $3.3b in FY01 to $5.1b in FY05, it is safe to say it’s not penny-pinching.

Under the new management of CIO Zalmai Azmi, the FBI is seeking to consolidate IT spending which will shore up additional funds during an already-booming time for Federal IT spending.

Soon after being appointed acting CIO in December 2003, Azmi called for an inventory of the bureau's IT assets and created a master list of applications, networks, databases, and other key IT components. "We found that one of the reasons we have the stovepipes was because different technology was being developed by different agencies within the bureau," Azmi says.

By compiling a consolidated list of IT assets, the FBI has a golden opportunity to get its mission accomplished. However, I wonder what has taken so long to do something so obvious?


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