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FBI Recasts Sentinel As Model Of Agility

The agency's CIO and CTO share the methodology they're using to hasten completion of its overdue case management system, so that other agencies can learn from their approach.

Can the FBI transform one of the federal government's most problem-plagued IT projects, its Sentinel case management system, into a model of success for other agencies?

Sentinel and its predecessor case management system have been a symbol of all that's wrong with government IT—over budget, behind schedule, and short on functionality. Sentinel grew out of an earlier failure, the FBI's Virtual Case File system, started in 2001 and scrapped four years -- and $170 million -- later.

Last September, after a partially completed Sentinel had been put on hold, FBI CIO Chad Fulgham decided to take over management of the project from lead contractor Lockheed Martin. Fulgham, a former senior VP of IT with Lehman Brothers who joined the FBI in December of 2008, outlined a plan to use agile development. For the past eight months, a small team of FBI technologists have been developing "working software" in intervals of a few weeks, then rolling that into bigger releases every two or three months.

Speaking at InformationWeek's Government IT Leadership Forum in Washington, D.C., on May 5, Fulgham and FBI CTO Jeff Johnson, another former Lehman Brothers IT manager, explained how they shifted the Sentinel project from traditional waterfall application development -- where requirements are established at the beginning and can take years to deliver.

Fulgham said a "system of record" will be delivered this summer, with a broader release in September. FBI agents and other employees will use Sentinel to manage the information associated with cases. Capabilities include records, document, and evidence management; workflow; records search; and a "workbox" for each user. Already, 10,000 employees are using the system's existing capabilities each month.

Fulgham's and Johnson's presentations were a how-to guide for agile development in federal government. They talked of the need to create a project storyboard, bring agents and other users together with the development team, colocate testers and application developers, generate frequent releases, produce only what's needed, and continuously integrate software, systems, and business processes. The FBI plans to publish a case study on its approach after the project is completed later this year.

The way the FBI changed course midproject suggests a route for other agencies struggling with elephant IT projects. Before anyone takes a page from the FBI's agile playbook, however, Fulgham and team must finish what they've started. Ten years and more than a half-billion dollars into this effort, we're still waiting to see how it ends.

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