Business/Finance

The feds and computer upgrades: Incompetence often rules

If another reason is needed to wonder about the effectiveness of the federal government, consider its ability to upgrade computer systems. Or, rather, its inability to do so on time and within budget.

The latest failure may drive citizens to consider vegetarianism: A new $20 million Department of Agriculture computer system, designed to manage inspections at all 6,500 of the nation’s slaughterhouses and meatpacking plants, crapped out for two days earlier this month, “putting at risk millions of pounds of beef, poultry, pork and lamb that had left the plants before workers could collect samples to check for E. coli bacteria and other contaminants.”

Reports Ron Nixon of The New York Times:

The shutdown of the system is only the latest in a series of computer troubles affecting some 3,000 federal meat inspectors who are using the new technology. The inspectors visually and manually inspect every carcass in slaughterhouses throughout the United States and also collect samples of beef, poultry and other meats — selected automatically by the new computer system — which are sent to laboratories to be tested for E. coli and salmonella, among other contaminants.

Over five months, 50 million pounds of ground beef missed scheduled inspections. (Wonder why the processors shipped the meat anyway …) At one plant — just one — “computer failures had caused inspectors to miss sampling another 50 million pounds of beef products,” reported Nixon.

The government and computers just don’t mix well.

Last year, John Nolan of the Dayton Daily News reported “nine computer network upgrade projects across the Defense Department were collectively 30 years behind schedule and more than $7 billion over budget, government auditors have told Congress.”

Last year John Hughes of Bloomberg News reported “a $2.4 billion replacement of U.S. air-traffic control computers that’s been plagued by delays and cost overruns will be completed within its revised budget and 2014 deadline …” The ATC upgrade is part of “the long-term, $40 billion effort to transform the U.S. air-traffic system to one based on satellite technology from one relying on radar.”

But that effort suffered a three-year delay and a price jacked up by $300 million. The Department of Transportation’s inspector general remained skeptical: “Overruns may reach as high as $500 million, or $170 million more than the FAA previously announced, and the completion date may slip to 2016, two years later than the FAA’s estimate …,” reported Hughes.

Last year, the FBI finally managed to finish its Sentinel computer upgrade. The system allows the FBI to manage case files. Sentinel arose from the ashes of a previous 2005 failed upgrade, Virtual Case File. Over the years, the cost to produce a workable system rose:

In 2006 the FBI awarded the new Sentinel contract to Lockheed Martin to deploy the system by 2009, but when cost concerns and other issues arose the FBI took over the final deployment and development of Sentinel. When the Bureau took over the project in 2010, they increased the total cost of the system by $26 million to $451 million.

And no one yet has been able to persuade the U.S. Senate to mandate electronic filing of campaign finance reports to the Federal Election Commission, which would save an estimated $500,000 a year.

Your tax dollars at work, people.

4 replies »

  1. Odd that you should blame the government for this failure. Almost certainly the lousy software
    was produced by a contractor. We’ve seen this over and over. Congress mandates outsourcing,
    and provides insufficient funds for in-house oversight and acceptance testing of the product.
    Bidders promise the moon, knowing from experience that when the money runs out they’ll
    either get more or be allowed to deliver a half-baked product. And If a dispute ensues, the
    contractor has a good chance of enlisting the support of his local congressman.

    A case in point: I once served on a committee to see what went wrong on a modest
    software contract for the Joint Chiefs of Staff. An army team had made a prototype that worked
    well, but policy said the production model had to be outsourced. A beltway bandit company
    dangled the expertise of computer hotshots to win the contract and then hired greenhorns to do
    the actual work, while the hotshots went out after other contracts. No wonder the product was
    way late and still not working.

    It is not a law of nature that “government and computers don’t mix well”. Congress mandates it.