Not all big federal IT deployments are disasters

There’s a lot of talk in the press these days about how hard it is for the federal government to do IT right and how the blame for the failures of the website should fall on the federal procurement system, not the federal managers.  As someone who advocated enthusiastically for federal use of relatively advanced IT while in government, I agree that the procurement process makes it hard to produce IT that works on budget and on time. There have been plenty of expensive IT failures in recent administrations.

That said, it isn’t impossible, even with stiff political opposition, to manage big public-facing federal IT projects successfully.  I can think of three fairly complex IT projects that my old department delivered despite substantial public/Congressional opposition in the second half of George W. Bush’s administration.  They weren’t quite as hard as the healthcare problem, but they were pretty hard and the time pressure was often just as great.  Putting together the list from memory, which may be faulty on some details, they are:

  • ESTA:  The Electronic System for Travel Authorization, unknown to Americans, must be negotiated by 20 million visa-waiver visitors to the US, who must seek and obtain approval for their travel.  Backend systems must send the details of each traveler’s filing to multiple agencies. The electronic approval then must be available to hundreds or thousands of US ports of entry 24 hours a day.  The system was put in place by Customs and Border Protection in about two years, with a firm deadline of January 2009 and despite the sniping of the European Union, which saw it as an “electronic visa.” Estimated cost to build and maintain:  $50 million a year.
  • E-Verify:  Half a million employers log on to E-Verify, many of them every day, to enter new-employee data and get confirmation from DHS that the employee is work-authorized.  Total transactions are about 20 million a year. The back-end coordinates with several other agency databases,  usually within a few minutes.  Business interests and immigration advocacy groups hated the system and did their best to portray it as a failure.  Any work-authorized American who was denied authorization, even temporarily, was treated as a scandal requiring abandonment of the system. Cost to build and maintain:  maybe $100 million a year.  To be fair, the system was put together much more slowly, over a decade or more, though some of the biggest jumps in traffic occurred in a few years after 2006.
  • US-VISIT:  Every foreign visitor to the United States is now fingerprinted at the border and the prints must be instantly compared against records in several other agencies. The program handles 45 million transactions a year and was put in place in a few years under Secretary Ridge, at a time when DHS was also trying to organize itself.  Civil liberties and foreign hostility to the whole idea of fingerprinting visitors was intense, and hopes that the system would fail were widespread in those circles.  It didn’t.  Annual cost:  up to $300 million.

These programs aren’t directly comparable to the healthcare challenge, but as I remember they were delivered without serious schedule or cost overruns, and they worked when delivered.  So it can be done with careful management, and to be frank, if your administration’s entire legacy depends on delivering a working healthcare IT system, managing the IT process should be a pretty high priority. So I am surprised at the management problems that the Obamacare website has suffered from.  They can’t be blamed entirely on the IT procurement process.

NOTE:  Continuing my experiment, which I am enjoying,  if you have comments that I am likely to find supportive, clarifying — or entertainingly abusive — please send them to vc.comments[at] Most entertaining abuse so far:  “I notice Stewart Baker is publishing more frequently now that he has closed comments.”  I think you can do better.

UPDATES: Eric Jablow writes to point out that some federal IT projects that are bywords for disaster, like the FBI’s modernization, can be salvaged. What’s interesting to me about the FBI’s Sentinel story is the assertion that it worked better because the FBI took considerable control of the project back from the prime contractor.  HHS is being criticized for acting as prime contractor in the deployment; the FBI’s experience suggests that this may be too simple a criticism.

And Andy Patterson offers another candidate:  ” I would also add the Global Entry / Nexus / Sentri system run by DHS (otherwise a badly run agency).  And, the Global Entry system interacts with TSA’s Pre-Check system.” He’s right.  Global Entry was mostly implemented after I left, so I don’t have a good sense of how long it took or how expensive it was, but the lead agency was CBP, which has a better track record than most in terms of delivering IT that works.

And another from Matt Osbun,  a software architect (the links are worth reading):

I’ve been keeping up with the debacle, not because it has to do with the ACA but because I’ve seen projects like this many times. I can’t speak to how much, if at all, the procurement process is to blame. However, I’ve worked in software development, in many roles, for almost 15 years now and the things I’ve read about the project’s mis-steps ring eerily familiar.

I wrote a series of articles breaking down some statements that have been made about the project and what those statements imply from the standpoint of someone that has had to go down with the sinking project a time or two.
I wrote from the viewpoint of a software development insider to the target audience of software developers. However, if you’d like to take a look they are at


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