FBI's Virtual Case File May Be Unusable


The FBI has spent the last five years and $170 million trying to create and electronic documents management system for its agents. The system is called Virtual Case File and it doesn't work. Only about 10% of the planned capacity has been implemented and an internal report by the DOJ's Inspector General says that it will be outdated before its fully deployed.

Work on the Virtual Case File began in 2000. Five years later, the technology world has changed and the way the system was developed makes updating it virtually impossible. For example, the Virtual Case File can't create or transmit electronic signatures, nor could that capability be added. FBI officials also expanded the scope of the file's mission and begun closer collaboration with the intelligence community following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the official said.

Whether agency officials will press forward in completing the Virtual Case File remains to be seen, the official said. FBI officials have hired Aerospace to conduct an independent assessment, but a draft report from the Justice Department's inspector general already concludes the program will not work. The official refused to answer questions on the content of the draft report.
From Virtual Case File a virtual bust
Referenced Wed Jan 19 2005 06:51:46 GMT-0700

The FBI is ready to scrap it and go back to their old paper-based system. Of course, SAIC and the FBI are pointing fingers at each other. SAIC's biggest complaints were scope creep and a "merry-go-round of managers:"

But SAIC said scope creep and a merry-go-round of managers made the project "incredibly challenging." According to a written statement released by SAIC on Friday, in the time the company been working on the Trilogy project, the FBI had four different CIOs and 14 different managers.
From FBI's Virtual Case File Flops
Referenced Wed Jan 19 2005 06:54:37 GMT-0700

The FBI is haunted by the same kinds of problems that cause problems in the private sector to fail, multiplied by ten: its bigger and public-sector managers don't typically have the same control as private-sector managers. On top of that, they made two huge errors that probably put this project on the road to failure right from the start. First, they decided to roll their own. Every enterprise suffers from the temptation to think that their business is unique. Government is more apt to do that than most. There are always elements of truth to this, but the fact is, that this was, at its heart, document management and there are commercial systems that do that.

Second, the FBI approached this as a single monolithic project. Time and time again, big project fail. I see people making the same mistake in projects I'm familiar with. Iterative approaches can be more disruptive to workflow because they require people adapt to multiple little changes over time rather than one big change sometime way out in the future. Even so, they're the only way I know how to do projects that work. This also plays into the architecture. Viewing it as a series of loosely coupled applications, rather than a single system pays huge dividends in getting it done and maintaining and upgrading it once its online.

Interestingly, we see big projects fail in the private-sector. In the public-sector, where big takes on a whole new meaning, they almost always fail. I'm thinking, for example, of the FAA's flight control system that's been in the works for 20 years. I don't know if we'll ever understand how to build monolithic projects on the scale that the Feds require, but I know that we don't have to try. There are other ways to approach the problem.