FEMA loses access to data and why gov’t systems are prone to lose things.

InformationWeek is reporting a story about FEMA and how they lost access to their lessons learned database.  The inspector general concluded that FEMA cannot access lessons learned materials prior to May 2010.  Here’s the link to their story http://www.informationweek.com/news/government/enterprise-apps/showArticle.jhtml?articleID=229209496&subSection=News#

I’ve seen this sort of “out with the old” and “in with the new” technology updates a few times in my career and after reading the article I picked up on a few key phrases that suggest this is a fairly normal government technology/contracting update that didn’t work correctly.

The article gives me the impression that the old system was probably a legacy computer running older or even antiquated software.  Those systems are usually tended by an administrator who is, how shall I put this nicely, set in their ways.  A more direct approach would be to say they are system zealots who have love for their machine and program and everything else is trash.

Managers can become fearful of these types of admins and organizations, especially ones with important missions like FEMA, need to update their technology.  The article talks about the functions of the old system being covered by two new projects.

The trouble springs from a few places.  Given the length of time it takes to plan, write, bid, and select a government contractor acquisition of new things is very very slow.  Typically the new thing you get via the acquisitions process is outdated the day it arrives.

The second source of trouble is the writing of the requirements documents for the new system.  If you do have a zealot guarding the old system, good luck trying to figure out what you need the new system to do and how to import data from the legacy device.  Even with help of the legacy system admin/managers you’ll have to deal with the new vendors and their tendency to “yes-man” every question just to get the business.  From person experience I’ve had vendors promise that their system would accept data from a legacy machine that I needed to replace only to find out that what the vendor really meant was they promise to work with us to write a separate service contract to help migrate for out legacy machine for a price (and a pretty stiff one at that.)

So before you get torch and pitchfork and march on FEMA demanding their IT manager’s head we have to look a little deeper into the situation and unwind the tendrils of contracting, acquisition, personal management, and then find the root cause.

The end of all this investigation will bear out that government systems (really any systems in large bureaucratic organizations) have dangerously long life cycles and poor end-of-life transition plans.  This stems from a focus on the system and not a focus on mission assurance.

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