1. Project Background Virtual Case File (VCF) was a software application developed for the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) between 2000 and 2005. It was built to replace the FBI’s old case management system named Automated Case Support (ACS) system. VCF was a third component of FBI’s Trilogy Project. The first component of the Trilogy project was upgrading of software and hardware (computer terminals, servers, printers and servers). The second component part was upgrading of FBI’s network infrastructure. The third component was modernizing the FBI’s investigative software applications by creating VCF. Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) was contracted to design, develop and implement VCF system in 2001. The Trilogy project was originally budgeted for $379.80 million and scheduled to be deployed in 2004 (U.S. Department of Justice, 2005).
The main aim of VCF was to automate the FBI’s paper-based systems and processes, allow FBI agents and analysts to obtain important information about cases anywhere in the United States, and to eventually replace the antiquated ACS system (Goldstein, 2005). VCF would also include an evidence management module, a case management module and a records management module. There was no commercial software package available that could meet FBI’s needs in 2001 when the project started, so a custom-developed system solution was required (Marchewka, 2010).
The VCF project failed to meet its initial deadline and was never deployed. It was officially cancelled by the FBI in April 2005 after 4 years of project activity and costing $581 million (Goldstein, 2005; U.S. Department of Justice, 2005).
2.Project Review The FBI Trilogy project was delayed by almost one year. The two components were successfully completed but Virtual Case File was never completed. The only functioning feature of the VCF system was the workflow component. Users were able to create case packages and automate the submission process.
A thorough tested conducted by the FBI from opening a case, creating leads and closing an investigation identified approximately 400 problems. The FBI could not create, search and analyse case leads and case files (U.S. Department of Justice, 2005). The VCF system did not have an offline use mode. FBI agents working on the case could not extract case materials from the system to use when working in the field. The VCF did not allow users to sort columns of data to allow easier searching of information. It did have an audit trail of case files in the system hence was prone to security breaches. In a nut-shell, the VCF system did not meet the FBI’s current needs.
3.Reasons for failure The VCF project failed because of a sequence of mistakes that lead to a chain of events that eventually lead to the ultimate failure of the project. The causes of the project are common with other failed IT projects. The causes of failure will be analysed against the CHAOS critical success factors for projects (Standish Group, 2009).
3.1User Involvement There was lack of user involvement in the VCF project. Key users were never involved from the requirements gathering and usability testing stage, which are the key stages of an IT project. Without involving users, the SAIC development team found it very difficult to understand all the requirements. As a result features that were not required were implemented while required features were not implemented.
3.2Executive Management Support From the start of the project, it was clear that the VCF project lacked executive support. Even though funds were made available for the project, there was an increasing internal and external pressure to complete the system quickly (Goldstein, 2005). The September 11 2001 bombings increased the need for the system. This resulted in SAIC agreeing to unrealistic project deadlines and taking shortcuts in terms of planning and system development. .
3.3Clear Statement of Requirements According to Mueller (2005), the FBI did not have complete set of system requirements when the contract was awarded to SAIC. Even though the FBI had an 800-plus requirements document, the requirements were too complicated, incomplete and not sufficiently defined. Also the requirements documents focused more on the finer details of the system layout instead of the high level functions of the system (Goldstein, 2005). Failure of the VCF project was also caused by continuously changing requirements. During the project life-cycle, the FBI made 400 change requests most of which had major impact on what was already designed and produced.
3.4Proper planning The VCF project lacked of proper planning. Firstly, the FBI had no Chief Information Officer (CIO) at the start of the project. Without a CIO, the FBI had no standard software infrastructure. The FBI had 23 divisions, each with their own IT budget, investigations database and applications (Goldstein, 2005). Secondly, the FBI had no Enterprise Architecture (EA) in place to assist them in making effective decisions about IT projects. This shortage lead to the SAIC developers having no formal documentation of how the FBI’s IT structure and systems are mapped to its processes to guide them during the development of the VCF system. Also SAIC was awarded a contract that did not have a defined project schedule and milestones.
3.5Realistic Expectations The urgent need for the VCF system by the FBI, pressure from the public and government lead to SAIC and the FBI agreeing to unrealistic and ambitious project completion dates. Due to the pressure, SAIC agreed to deliver the initial version of the VCF 6 months earlier than the original date.
3.6Smaller Project Milestones SAIC wanted to deliver a full working system without any milestones. This resulted in huge and major re-changes of the system during system review and testing.
3.7Competent Staff At the start of the project, the FBI had no Chief Information Officer. This resulted in the appointment of a project manager, who had no experience in IT project management (Goldstein, 2005). Considering the size and budget of the VCF project it was very critical to have a very experienced project manager to head the project. Having an inexperienced project manager can lead to poor project management practices and policies. For example, SAIC was awarded a weak contract that did not specify completion milestones, review stages and penalties for missed milestones (U.S. Department of Justice, 2005). In addition, the contract was based on hours worked rather than deliverables (Mueller, 2005). In a nut-shell all the FBI had an inexperienced IT team with no experience in software development projects and general project management.
3.8Ownership The VCF project had 15 different key personnel, this included 5 different chief information officers and 10 different project managers during the project span (U.S. Department of Justice, 2005). This high turnover in key personnel involved in the project lead to a lack of project ownership and accountability.
3.9Clear Vision & Objectives The VCF project lacked clear objectives. The terrorist attacks in September 11 2001, Hanssen espionage case and Oklahoma City bombing case triggered the FBI to regularly change the project objectives (U.S. Department of Justice, 2005).
4.Alternatives to prevent failure This section will highlight some the options that the FBI could have considered to avert failure of the VCF project.
4.1Enterprise Architecture The FBI should have considered having EA before commencing the VCF project. It would have helped SAIC in mapping the FBI processes and systems. The lack of an EA leads to a poor requirements analysis which increases the possibilities of an IT project failing.
4.2Human Resources The FBI should have considered having a CIO and experienced IT project manager before awarding the contract. A CIO would have ensured that the FBI has adequate personnel with the right skills set for the VCF project. An experienced project manager will have ensured that proper project management procedures and planning are followed.
4.3Contract management Considering the size, complexity and cost of the project the FBI needed a well-defined contract that explicitly states and addresses key issues such as milestones, deliverables and penalties. Also the payment terms of the contract should have been based on deliverables and milestones.
4.4Requirement analysis A thorough requirements analysis should have been done that would have produced an exhaustively detailed requirements documents. SAIC should not have started developing the system without having a thorough understanding of the requirements.
4.5Phased approach Considering the size and complexity of the project, the project should have been developed and deployed in phases. A big-bang approach to large IT projects usually fails.
4.6Communication Better communication was need between FBI, SAIC and the executive management. This would have avoided unrealistic schedules and expectations between the 3 members.
5.Lessons for Management This section will highlight some the key lessons to be learned from the failure of the VCF project.
5.1Enterprise Architecture (EA) is vital for IT An EA is highly important in strategically managing a company’s investment in IT and should be a foundation for any large IT project.
5.2Plan before you act Large IT projects need thorough planning of resources and time. This also involves having clear and complete requirements before any development work is started.
5.3Human capital management Having the right people with right skills and experience at the right positions is vital. Also ensuring minimal turnover of key personnel during a project’s life-cycle is critical to the success of the project.
5.4Incremental approach Large IT projects need to be developed and deployed in phases. A phased approach helps to minimize the risk of failure and allows problems to identified and fixed early.
5.5Financial resources Financial capital is not a short cut to faster delivery. Large IT projects need realistic schedules to ensure their success.