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Government // Leadership
11:27 AM
Mark Douglas
Mark Douglas

Lessons From A Failed Federal IT Project

What's Plan B when a federal CIO's important IT program crashes and burns?

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Federal executives are usually reluctant to talk about their IT program failures -- especially when they involve big programs like the Air Force's Enterprise Combat Support System. But the failure of ECSS also offers valuable lessons to federal executives and CIOs who are trying to support them.

The idea behind ECSS was to implement an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that would have "subsumed" more than 250 major existing data systems affecting more than 250,000 users. ECSS was to cost more than $5 billion and take about seven years to implement completely.

After losing altitude and airspeed for some time due to a variety of problems -- some unavoidable, some self-inflicted -- ECSS crashed and burned last year. I say "burned" because it's unclear how much of the work on that program may be used by the Air Force beyond the lessons that came out of it.

[ Agencies are gaining ground when it comes to automating information exchange. Read Information Sharing: Feds Cite Progress. ]

Based on my personal experience working in and on the Air Force supply chain for 26 years and inside the ECSS program on the contractor side for more than four years, I concluded the following factors were the major contributors to the program's failure:

Leadership and Change Management

The magnitude of the program made the Secretary of the Air Force the lowest level of leadership with full direct authority over all impacted organizations. But because ECSS was largely viewed as just a "logistics" system, when it came to oversight and involvement, the Air Force wasn't ready for the change management required and couldn't get ready in time for the program's survival.


The size and scope of ECCS were also too big for the Air Force to assimilate, based on complexity, number of systems and impacted organizations, pace of implementation and inability to deal with management risks.

Acquisition Strategy

The firm fixed price (FFP) acquisition proved too inflexible for the immaturity of the program requirements. That led to an over-administrated, adversial environment with many contract changes.

Program Management

There were major requirements changes, which resulted in a loss of focus on the business case. The program's management was also hindered by politically influenced decisions and concerns over possible conflicts of interest.


Because of inadequate requirement definitions, it was very difficult to adopt industry-standard supply chain processes -- there was always a tendency to revert to legacy processes driven by legacy systems.


ECSS exposed a tremendous amount of data inaccuracy and unavailability that, despite heroic efforts, was not fixable to meet program requirements.


The Air Force selected ERP software applications before selecting the systems integrator. When the applications could not meet program requirements, it drove major cost increases and schedule delays.


ECSS was by far the largest business system implementation the Air Force had ever attempted for establishing application development environments and running on its network. Despite strong efforts to anticipate, find and fix bottlenecks, ECSS exposed numerous problems that couldn't be overcome.

Post Mortem: Cleaning up the Crash Site

What can a federal CIO and agency executives learn from ECSS and other IT crashes – especially in trying to move forward after a major failure?

First, get painfully real about the fundamental causes of the crash, not what people might be saying. Be careful not to "drink your own bath water," and focus on the things that must be fixed before you move on.

As for the Air Force example and a potential "son of ECSS," it's not happening. However, all the reasons the Air Force needs to modernize and transform its legacy logistics data systems remain. And now there are the added pressures of Defense Department budget cuts, sequestration and the Congressional mandate to achieve financial "audit readiness" by 2016.

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User Rank: Author
9/13/2013 | 1:59:26 PM
re: Lessons From A Failed Federal IT Project
A seven-year, $5 billion ERP project crashed and burned: Was anyone held accountable? Did anyone lose his/her job? Were any IT contractors put on a black list for government work? Unless there's accountability, we'll continue to see these project disasters, whether it's in the federal government or private sector.
User Rank: Apprentice
9/13/2013 | 8:24:35 PM
re: Lessons From A Failed Federal IT Project
How do you punish enough to get your $5 billion back?
User Rank: Author
10/24/2013 | 8:43:07 PM
re: Lessons From A Failed Federal IT Project
Walter Pincus @WashingtonPost makes a great point - referencing this article -- in his 10/ 24 column http://wapo.st/19wHvHL in noting that for all the fuss right now over Healthcare.gov, there have been many other government IT project failures (like the one Mark Douglas writes about here) that never got the scrutiny Healthcare.gov is getting now.
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