Think HealthCare.gov is bad? Other tech issues have flown under public’s radar

Reporter

Why have other troubled government computer efforts, such as one shut down last year after losing $1 billion, never gotten the attention and vitriol being showered on HealthCare.gov?

That other troubled one involved the Defense Department, which for years has spent billions trying to rationalize the many computerized operations meant to keep track of how its services and agencies spend money.

Walter Pincus reports on intelligence, defense and foreign policy for The Washingon Post. He first came to the paper in 1966 and has covered numerous subjects, including nuclear weapons and arms control, politics and congressional investigations. He was among Post reporters awarded the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. View Archive

In this case, it was the Air Force. In 2005 it began a program designed to integrate into one system about 240 outdated computer networks at 600 locations that didn’t communicate with each other. It was to manage things such as equipment inventories, contracting, financial administration and personnel assignments.

The Air Force first estimated that the Expeditionary Combat Support System would cost $5.2 billion. On Nov. 14, 2012, it said it was canceling ECSS after spending up to $1.03 billion. The system “has not yielded any significant military capability,” according to an Air Force statement e-mailed to reporters. The Air Force estimated it would need $1.1 billion more to complete one-quarter of the originally designed program. Even so, it would not be ready until 2020.

Was there outrage? On Dec. 5, 2012, Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and member John McCain (R-Ariz.) of the Senate Armed Services Committee sent a letter to then-Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta saying they had heard that ECSS had been canceled and that “usable hardware and software with a value of less than $150 million” remained from the program.

They called the situation “one of the most egregious examples of mismanagement in recent memory,” and added, “We believe that the public and the taxpayers deserve a clear explanation.” Among the questions they asked were “who will be held accountable, and what steps the Department is taking to ensure that this will not happen again?”

These weren’t amateurs working on the ECSS program. Oracle and Computer Sciences Corp. were among the key contractors. Mark Douglas, a retired Air Force colonel who worked as a contractor on the program, wrote last month in Information Week, “The size and scope of ECSS were . . . 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.”

ECSS was part of a broader, more costly Pentagon program to meet a congressionally mandated target of Sept. 30, 2017, when Defense is supposed to have an auditable consolidated financial statement. That would be a first.

Yes, Defense, which has been spending $600 billion or more every year — more than half of the federal discretionary budget — has not presented an auditable financial statement.

In 2005, after initiating efforts to deal with its financial management, the department developed a program called Financial Improvement and Audit Readiness (FIAR). Four years later, the Defense comptroller directed that FIAR’s efforts focus on “improving processes and controls supporting information most often used to manage operations,” according to a 2010 Government Accountability Office study.

That new emphasis resulted in part from Congress’s insertion into the fiscal 2010 defense authorization bill of a requirement that the department set up a plan to improve its financial management.

Defense identified key computer systems necessary to change its business operations. Called Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems, they were to use commercial, off-the-shelf software for integration of its multiple systems, an approach that had helped private industry transform itself.

A study by the Institute for Defense Analyses, done for the Defense comptroller and the House Armed Services Committee and released in February 2011, said that by December 2009, the Pentagon “had invested over $5.8 billion in ERPs and will invest additional billions before the ERPs are fully implemented.”

It added that “most of these programs are over budget, behind schedule, and have not met performance expectations.” ECSS was one of the ERP programs.

Where are we now?

A March 30, 2012, GAO report to the House Armed Services Committee on 11 ERP systems listed delays ranging from six months to six years. Cost growth existed for almost all of them. For example, a Navy ERP begun in July 2003 had a lifetime cost estimate that grew from $1.9 billion to $2.7 billion. A Defense Department Enterprise Accounting and Management System begun in 2003 for deployment in 2014 would now not be deployed until the end of fiscal 2016. Its lifetime cost estimate grew from $1.1 billion to $1.6 billion.

In July, Comptroller General Gene L. Dodaro told the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform that the Pentagon was still trying to improve its budgetary systems.

He said there were still deficiencies relative to “billions of dollars in funds and other resources.” For example, he said, the Army and the Defense Finance and Accounting Service could not easily identify the “full population of payroll accounts associated with the Army’s $46 billion active duty military payroll,” and continued difficulties were being encountered in keeping ERP systems on schedule and within budget.

Defense isn’t the only federal entity that has escaped public notoriety for technological troubles. Few remember the FBI’s almost 10-year effort, post-9/11, to install a computer system that tracked cases and managed evidence. First there was a three-year, $170 million project for a computerized system called Virtual Case File that ended in 2005. Then there was the Sentinel project, which cost $441 million by the time it was implemented in August 2012.

As the Justice Department’s inspector general reported last year, some additional requirements were added over the course of the contract, but others “have been modified or deleted . . . [and] some requirements were transferred to other FBI systems.”

The conclusion: The new health-care law’s computer issues are not unique.

For previous Fine Print columns, go to washingtonpost.com/fedpage.

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