How the FBI Proves Agile Works for Government Agencies

After almost a decade of mismanagement and waste at the FBI, its CIO turned the agency's maligned case management implementation into an agile project. Two years later, the system is live. This relative success, as well as the example of other federal agencies, shows that agile can work in Washington.

By Jason Bloomberg
Wed, August 22, 2012

CIO — The FBI issued a press release at the end of July that hardly sent a ripple. You probably didn't notice—which is ironic, considering the release caps more than a decade of hard work and more than $600 million in taxpayer dollars spent. The end of a story so fraught with miscommunication, incompetence and failed oversight that the entire debacle would have been a shoo-in for the most flagrant waste of taxpayer dollars since, well, ever—except that the project was turned around, put back on track and is now live thanks to the fact that it was rescued by following an agile software development methodology.

Wait, agile rescued a huge money-pit fiasco of a government project? You mean, iterative, skunkworks, put-the-customer-on-the-team, forget-the-plan agile? You betcha. Agile turned out to be the hero in the tights and cape, coming to save the day.

Not only that, the U.S. Government is serious about Agile. Not only is agile part of Federal CIO Steven VanRoekel's "Future First" initiative, but the Government Accountability Office (GAO) just issued a report on the federal government's use of agile.

The primary lesson? Agile actually works. It's not perfect, and many people in government and in the contractor community still struggle with it, but it's succeeding where it counts—enabling the rollout of large-scale IT projects that are on time, on budget and actually do what stakeholders want them to do. Imagine that.

Case Management System Replaced Decades of Paper Files

The FBI project in question is the Sentinel case management system, which finally moves the law enforcement bureau off J. Edgar Hoover-era paper files. The initial motivation for Sentinel arose in part from 9/11, when the FBI couldn't even email photos of the hijackers securely and had to resort to sending faxes or overnighting CD-ROMs. In response, Congress approvied $170 million for the Virtual Case File initiative, and the FBI selected SAIC as the primary contractor.

By 2004, the project had died an early death, the victim of mismanaged requirements analysis, abysmally poor design, ineffective development and flawed project management. SAIC's 730,000 lines of code never worked properly, leading the FBI to scrap the entire project. By 2006, the total cost had ballooned to $600 million, and all the FBI had to show for all that money was bupkus.

Enter Sentinel. This time it was Lockheed Martin's turn. The first two phases were budgeted at $306 million, but by August 2010 the project was only half done and $100 million over budget. So the FBI asked MITRE, a federally-funded research organization, to estimate what it would cost to finish Sentinel. The number was $351 million—on top of the $405 million already spent, not to mention the $600 million the FBI had dropped on VCF.

Continue Reading

Our Commenting Policies