Troubled FBI IT Project Should Go Forward Despite Planning Shortcomings

The project is at risk because the FBI lacks a solid IT architecture plan, but it's also too important to wait, says a Government Accountability Office official
The FBI should proceed with its Sentinel case-management system even if it doesn't yet have a complete IT architecture plan in place, even though that might cause problems in deployment, a letter released Thursday from a congressional auditor says.

"Certain urgent and compelling mission needs will necessitate acquiring system capabilities at the same time architectures are being developed," Randolph Hite, director of IT architecture and systems issues at the Government Accountability Office, wrote in a letter to Rep. Frank Wolf, the Virginia Republican who chairs the House Subcommittee on Science, the Departments of State, Justice, and Commerce, and Related Agencies.

Wolf had asked the GAO, in a follow-up to testimony given Sept. 14, whether the FBI should proceed with the new case-management system if enterprise architecture deficiencies exist.

In writing that the FBI should proceed with Sentinel, Hite cautioned that problems likely will surface because of a lack of an enterprise architecture plan: "A key to dealing with this practical reality is recognizing that doing so increases the risk of deploying systems that are duplicative, not well integrated, and unnecessarily costly to operate and interface."

Hite, writing to the Wolf, reiterated previous GAO positions in responding to the congressman's queries:

  • "The absence of performance-based contracting and effective contractor tracking and oversight has constrained the FBI's ability to effectively manage and oversee its EA contractor. More specifically, it has inhibited the bureau's ability to adequately define product quality expectations, which in turn increases the chances that delivered products will require rework."

  • "The FBI has been challenged in its ability to retain individuals in senior IT positions. ... A recent assessment of the FBI's human capital efforts by the National Academy of Public Administration states that the bureau still faces challenges in this area, including establishing an overall strategy for unifying the various FBI leadership development and other human capital initiatives and developing and implementing a strategic process to plan for intermediate and long-term leadership and workforce needs."

  • "Four of five key [IT] architect positions were vacant. According to bureau officials, the absence of these key staff was hampering their architecture development efforts. Bureau officials told us that job announcements had been issued for the four key architect positions, but it had been difficult finding the right candidates."

  • "The bureau has yet to create an integrated plan of action that is based on a comprehensive analysis of human capital roles and responsibilities needed to support the IT functions established under the office of the CIO's reorganization. ... According to the CIO, he is in the process of hiring a contractor with human capital expertise to help identify gaps between existing and needed skills and abilities and intends to have this effort completed, including the development of an implementation plan to address any gaps, by the end of 2005."

    Sentinel is an electronic information-management system under development that's designed to help the bureau leverage newer, standardized IT. Sentinel will test more than whether the FBI can finally get the file-sharing ability envisioned for the abandoned Virtual Case File project. It also will reveal whether the FBI's efforts in recent years to create a better-run IT department and a modern IT platform have worked. CIO Zalmai Azmi sees Sentinel--the FBI's first software platform built on a Web-friendly, service-oriented IT architecture--as nothing short of a way for the bureau to finally break free from the shackles of its outmoded IT systems.