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Will DOJ Tech Project Die After 10 Years?

Secure, interoperable radio network project created in the wake of 9/11 attacks may be headed for failure, with $356 million already spent, says report by DOJ''s inspector general.

A secure, interoperable radio network that the Department of Justice has been working on for more than a decade and that has cost the agency $356 million may be headed for failure, according to a new report by the agency's inspector general.

According to the report, inadequate funding, frequent revisions to DOJ's plans, and poor coordination threaten the success of the Integrated Wireless Network (IWS) and could leave the agency with obsolete radio equipment that doesn't communicate well with other radio systems, which could in turn pose a threat to public safety.

The program, DOJ's response to the 9/11 Commission's push for interoperable law enforcement communications, originally aimed to provide wireless communications to more than 81,000 federal law enforcement agents nationwide in the Department of Justice, Department of Homeland Security, and Department of the Treasury. General Dynamics, one of IWN's top contractors, claims that the project could also save agency costs in the long run by reducing the number of radio towers by more than 50%.

[To read about more government IT challenges, see Top Government IT Flops Of 2011.]

IWS has been no stranger to trouble. A 2007 inspector general's report found that, despite six years of work, little progress had been made, and IWN faced a "high risk" of failure. That report pinned the problems on funding difficulties, conflicting priorities, miscommunication, and a mangled decision-making process. Much of the funding for IWN at the time went instead to maintain creaky legacy systems.

After that report, DOJ "refined its deployment strategy" to make the program more cost-effective, to improve project management, to increase oversight of the project, and to tweak the program's priorities, the agency said in 2010 in an annual report on DOJ's responses to auditors' comments. The agency also stood up initial operating capacity for IWN in the Washington, D.C., region.

However, in a similar report the following year, DOJ raised concerns about funding and indicated that the agency "continue[d] to have concerns about the program's implementation." The project was consistently poorly rated on the federal IT Dashboard, which tracks the performance of federal IT projects.

Today, the Department of Justice continues to rely on several separate land mobile radio systems, some of which are unreliable, obsolete, and fail to interoperate with one another. Agents often have to swap radios, share channels, or refer to a book of radio frequencies and manually switch between those frequencies to stay online. Radios remain insecure, as much of the current equipment fails to meet encryption requirements. Much of the agency's equipment is more than 15 years old and is no longer even supported by the manufacturer.

IWN, which was slated to cost more than $5 billion through 2021, has been repeatedly scaled back. Funding was cut in fiscal 2010 and then again in fiscal 2011, and has been suspended altogether for fiscal 2012. Further, the Department of Homeland Security is no longer participating in the effort, cutting the total number of projected users to about 30,000, and, according to the inspector general report, future participation of the Department of the Treasury appears unlikely.

While IWN has not yet been subject to one of the Office of Management and Budget's rigorous TechStat meetings, which bring all project stakeholders to the table to correct course on troubled IT projects, it has come under scrutiny from the White House. The President's 2012 budget recommended suspension of the program, citing new alternatives like 3G and 4G wireless networks as well as the development of a National Public Safety Broadband Plan. Public safety officials have often cast doubt on the viability of 3G and 4G wireless networks, citing possible downtime during natural disasters.

InformationWeek's 2012 Government IT Innovators program will feature the most innovative government IT organizations in the 2012 InformationWeek 500 issue and on InformationWeek.com. Does your organization have what it takes? The nomination period for 2012 Government IT Innovators closes April 27.

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