By Deborah Gage Print this article Print

The federal agency stumbled in its attempt to trade a paper-based filing system for an electronic one. Experts offer tips on how the agency can regain its balance.

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Hurdle No. 2

The FBI is without a permanent chief information officer for a year; Mueller can't fill the position after the previous CIO retired. Meanwhile, the Virtual Case File project continues to flounder.

The fix: Make sure you have the right people and processes in place before you start your project.

After 9/11, the FBI pushed to hire qualified people from the private sector to work on its technology projects. Several new hires, including former CIO Darwin John in July 2002, said they joined the FBI out of a desire to help their country.

But patriotism was not enough to straighten out a mess as big as Trilogy. "In my naiveté, I did believe we had the appropriate program managers," Mueller told the senators during the February hearing. But, he added, he learned that "there are project managers and project managers." Even though the FBI hired people from IBM and Lucent, Mueller said, he still had no software engineering specialist capable of "drilling down into what was being composed by SAIC."

Mueller isn't sure his team has that capability now "to drill down into a particular software package and determine whether everything is going as it should go." But at least, he told the senators, his current CIO brings him bad news "early on."

SAIC has a different take on the FBI's troubles with Trilogy. The $6.7 billion San Diego-based research and engineering firm cites 19 government management changes since November 2001 that had a significant impact on the project. Sen. Leahy cites five CIOs and 10 project managers. From January 2003 to March 2004, the FBI asked SAIC for 399 changes in Trilogy, says Gartner vice president T. Jeff Vining.

"We would have regular meetings, weekly or monthly," SAIC's Reynolds says, "and the FBI program manager would be retold the status of the project. The communication disconnect would be our understanding of whether that was well communicated to all stakeholders."

Getting the right people to work on a project is hard. Accenture's Suh says an organization's most desirable people—the ones who can execute and have good reputations—are also usually the busiest.

"Organizations have to decide just how important these projects are," he says, and then create ways for the best people to apply their talents if they are the people the project really needs. One solution: Let them work part-time. Giving functional leadership roles to the most important people in the organization is often overrated, Suh says: "Most of these projects run pretty well by themselves."

The FBI turned to experts like Gartner and The Aerospace Corp. and created an advisory board of CIOs. In May 2004, Mueller hired a permanent CIO—Zalmai Azmi from the Department of Justice's Executive Office of U.S. Attorneys—who reports directly to Mueller and coordinates how the bureau handles all information technology, currently $1 billion worth of projects.

For example, FBI divisions are no longer allowed to create projects on their own. Gartner's Vining notes that SAIC was trying to map to 42 separate systems to make VCF work.

This article was originally published on 2005-04-06
Senior Writer
Based in Silicon Valley, Debbie was a founding member of Ziff Davis Media's Sm@rt Partner, where she developed investigative projects and wrote a column on start-ups. She has covered the high-tech industry since 1994 and has also worked for Minnesota Public Radio, covering state politics. She has written freelance op-ed pieces on public education for the San Jose Mercury News, and has also won several national awards for her work co-producing a documentary. She has a B.A. from Minnesota State University.

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