DHS Computer Project: A Record Cost Overrun?

November 9, 2015
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Politics and bureaucratic mismanagement drive up costs and generate failure in the federal government. More evidence comes from a Washington Post report today on a botched computer project at the Department of Homeland Security:

Heaving under mountains of paperwork, the government has spent more than $1 billion trying to replace its antiquated approach to managing immigration with a system of digitized records, online applications and a full suite of nearly 100 electronic forms.

A decade in, all that officials have to show for the effort is a single form that’s now available for online applications and a single type of fee that immigrants pay electronically. The 94 other forms can be filed only with paper.

This project, run by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services, was originally supposed to cost a half-billion dollars and be finished in 2013. Instead, it’s now projected to reach up to $3.1 billion, and be done nearly four years from now.

A six times cost overrun! That is epic. I’ve described Edwards law of Cost Doubling in government, but this DHS project rises to an elite screw-up category reached by the Big Dig, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge, and a veterans hospital in Denver, which all more than quadrupled in cost.

Other than “shoddy planning” and mismanagement, what else contributed to the latest DHS screw-up? The Post reports on the role of politics:

By 2012, officials at the Department of Homeland Security, which includes USCIS, were aware that the project was riddled with hundreds of critical software and other defects. But the agency nonetheless began to roll it out, in part because of pressure from Obama administration officials who considered it vital for their plans to overhaul the nation’s immigration policies, according to the internal documents and interviews.

… By 2012, the system’s fundamental flaws — including frequent computer crashes and bad software code — were apparent to officials involved with the project and, according to one of them, and it was clear that “it wasn’t going to work.”

But killing the project wasn’t really an option, according to officials involved at the time. President Obama was running for reelection and was intent on pushing an ambitious immigration reform program in his second term. A workable electronic system would be vital.

“There was incredible pressure over immigration reform,” a second former official said. “No one wanted to hear the system wasn’t going to work. It was like, ‘We got some points on the board, we can go back and fix it.’ ”

For more, see the new Downsizing Government essays Federal Government Cost Overrunsand Bureaucratic Failure in the Federal Government.

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