Saturday, December 28, 2002

Federal Bureau of Information Technology

I came across an interesting article at talking about the FBI's Information Technology Endeavors.

Believe it or not, the FBI was/is one of the most technology "backwards" of the larger well-funded bureaus in the federal government. One of the related articles calls the FBI IT infrastructure like this:

"Trilogy would move the FBI "an enormous step forward," Schumer said. "We need it today, not tomorrow. We needed it yesterday." Schumer described FBI technology as "dinosaur-era" and "fossil technology.""

I'm not a big fan of Charles Schumer, but with what I've been told about the FBI's technology I think he's being pretty accurate.

I know we all have visions from TV (X-Files in particular) and the movies of these large expansive complex all-reaching technologically advanced systems in the law-enforcement, intelligence, and military sections of the government. However, that is far from the actual reality. Most government systems are very 'hodge-podge' with multiple uncoordinated databases and overworked and/or incompetent administrators.

So why do these projects often fail, or take many more years to complete than they should?

One can only theorize, but I have my guesses:

1. The people working in the FBI's IT department are probably underpaid. Even with recent programs that are going to allow the pay scales to step outside the normal federal classifications in order to attract better people, you aren't getting the 'cream of the crop'. Filling out a Federal Application for Employment requires a degree in 'Bureaucracy'. I understand the need for thorough background checks, but have you looked at what you need to fill out? I've also heard that if you aren't an agent, you aren't treated very well at the FBI.

2. Most desirable IT people probably can't meet the stringent security requirements of the FBI. This is a Catch-22 for the bureau. You need people with pristine backgrounds working in an agency that has access to the type of information that is stored at the bureau. Unfortunately, many of the socially mal-adjusted in the IT industry (not ALL of you, just some) have done some pretty heavy experimentation with illegal substances, or tried their hand at 'Cracking' (malicious hacking), or other things that would probably get them on the black-list.

3. Over administration. I have not found one case of a governmental organization that wasn't filled with upper-level management that weren't either incompetent, micro-managers, over-analyzers, simply concerned with their own agendas and self-promotion, or a combination of any of those. Sure there are diamonds in the rough that will do the right thing, but they are usually surrounded by so much crap they can't help their people no matter how much they would like to. With a lack of stability in management as people try to move around to get promoted, it makes a cohesive strategy difficult to implement. Management tends to 'over-meeting' and 'over-committee' IT people to death as well. They spend more time in meetings than you do getting things done, and often the outcomes of the meetings are very confusing with no clarity on the direction that is to be taken. Also IT personnel probably get conflicting orders on what priorities to set and what to do next. Things shift daily depending on the office political environment and who is on the 'hot-seat' at the time.

4. Purchasing. If you've ever worked in the government sector, you know what a pain it is to try to purchase something. It gets worse the bigger the government. Local is bad enough, state is worse, and federal is almost incomprehensible. There's a reason we used to have $700 hammers, and not all of it was greed on the part of the contractors. Often you request to purchase equipment, and by the time it is delivered its obsolete. Or if you do get it quickly enough, you get it all at once and since you are already understaffed, you can't possibly get it configured and deployed in a decent amount of time.

5. "Management By Magazine". Some upper-level manager reads something cool in a tech-rag, and suddenly that becomes the mega-project of the day, or they have no idea how hard it would be to integrate the product into the current environment. Some slimy salespeople (again, some - not all) in the private sector pushing their vapor- or brokenware doesn't help either.

6. Resistance To Change. "We've always done it this way", or "We can't do that, it doesn't follow guidelines." or "We have to get these forms exactly as they are onto the system". All these are huge hurdles that IT personnel have to overcome to try to implement technology to help people do their own jobs more efficiently. Of course, many of the incompetent are making a good living in the government, and those persons can't have someone making their jobs easier - then they won't have anything to complain about or blame for not getting their work done, all while they take bathroom or smoke breaks every 15-minutes.

Of course, not all of this is unique to government. It occurs in the private sector as well no matter the size of the organization. However, it is so entrenched in the government sector that is would be a Herculean task to get it changed. The person doing the changes would probably also be vilified and blamed for every small problem that happened along the way. Problems will crop-up. They occur in all endeavors worth completing.

The problem is that everyone's looking to their next promotion or election and doesn't want to make anyone unhappy, so they have the impossible task of trying to make everyone happy. Therefore the cycle continues, and I don't know where or how it's going to be broken.