Senate to probe failed Air Force software project as lawmakers call for stop to IT waste

The move comes a few months after Air Force officials decided to scrap the struggling Oracle-based ERP implementation

The Senate Armed Services Committee plans to investigate what happened with a massive, failed U.S. Air Force ERP (enterprise resource planning) project, amid a rising tide of calls for action on Capitol Hill to reduce wasteful IT spending.

"I remain deeply troubled by the failure of the Air Force's Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS) program," said Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, who chairs the committee, in a statement provided by his office. "I have directed the Committee's investigative staff to conduct a comprehensive investigation of the program in the next Congress to determine the causes for the failure and assess steps that can be taken to avoid similar failures in the future."

The project had racked up US$1 billion in costs since 2005, and the Air Force announced in November that it would scrap the implementation rather than continue, after determining that completing it would cost billions more for too little benefit.

Computer Sciences Corporation had worked as a systems integrator on the project, which involved Oracle software, but its contract was terminated in March 2012, according to the Air Force.

"CSC will provide any requested information regarding our contributions to the Air Force's goal to modernize logistics," CSC spokeswoman Heather Williams said via email, when asked for comment on the Senate panel's announcement.

ECSS was "an enormously complex task," and CSC's work "provided the Air Force with the foundational capabilities and IT assets for implementing the software system in the future," Williams added. In addition, CSC's experience on the project helped it improve its methodology for building such systems, Williams said.

But the Senate panel's decision to investigate the project "offers too little, too late," said analyst Michael Krigsman, CEO of consulting firm Asuret and an expert on why IT projects fail.

Still, if they move forward, "the committee should examine the problem from two directions," Krigsman added. "Looking at the overall procurement to delivery process while also digging into the money trail on this specific project."

Meanwhile, the Senate's move to investigate comes during the same week as the U.S. House of Representatives' Committee on Oversight and Government Reform held a hearing titled "Wasting Information Technology Dollars: How Can the Federal Government Reform its IT Investment Strategy."

The U.S. government spent $81 billion per year on IT in 2012, up from $46 billion in 2001, committee Chairman Darrell Issa, a California Republican, said during the hearing. "Even in Washington, that's a lot of money."

"Program failures and cost overruns plague three-quarters of all large federal IT programs," Issa added. "Federal managers say that 47 percent of their budget goes to maintain obsolete and deficient IT resources. Estimates suggest that as much as $20 billion of taxpayer money is wasted each year."

"But let us understand, in this case it's not the waste of the $20 billion, it's what that $20 billion could do properly applied to provide transparency into our government," he added. "We've built an IT infrastructure that is bloated, inefficient and actually makes it more difficult for the government to serve its systems."

The panel also discussed a report issued this week by the Government Accountability Office, the U.S. watchdog agency. It contains a series of examples of IT projects that have not been completed, despite the expenditure of vast sums. One example is an electronic records project at the National Archives, which cost $375 million through fiscal year 2010, according to the report. The project was stopped at the end of fiscal 2011.

In the past 10 years, the government has spent $600 billion on IT, said Representative John Mica, a Florida Republican, during the hearing. This is not a small potatoes item."

There is also a profound problem with duplicative projects. The GAO found that in fiscal 2011, the federal government funded 622 separate HR systems, 580 financial management systems and 777 supply chain management systems, according to Mica.

"All this duplication comes at some pretty significant cost," Mica said. "What we should be doing is aggregating demand among the agencies ... to get the best prices for IT products and services."

Despite the hopes of lawmakers, preventing more major project failures "will be extremely difficult to accomplish," Krigsman said. "Fundamental problems exist in the entire chain, from defining the project, through procurement, delivery, staffing and oversight."

In addition, the large amount of money at stake "creates strong incentives for vendors to milk the system and for internal operatives to focus on their own narrow priorities," he added.

A wiser approach would be to conduct smaller projects that would allow for more oversight, according to Krigsman.

Chris Kanaracus covers enterprise software and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Chris' email address is Chris_Kanaracus@idg.com

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Tags applicationsenterprise resource planningCIO roleJohn MicalegalsoftwareIT managementOracleDarrell IssaservicesComputer Sciences Corporation

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