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Editorial: A cautionary tale

Jul. 11, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
By STEVE WATKINS   |   Comments
Steve Watkins, Managing Editor of Federal Times.

One of the most spectacular and costly failures of federal procurement in recent years was the Air Force’s failed Expeditionary Combat Support System (ECSS).

ECSS was a commercial enterprise resource planning (ERP) system that would provide integrated management of Air Force logistics and replace numerous, disconnected systems. But between 2004 and 2012, when the program was finally canceled, the service spent $1.1 billion on the program and had nothing to show for it.

RELATED: Senate report blasts Air Force for $1.2B logistics system failure

A new report by the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations examines the lessons learned from the ECSS fiasco and should be mandatory reading for all federal managers and leaders. I suspect many federal managers would find at least some problems cited in the report familiar:

■ Cultural resistance to change within the Air Force.

■ Lack of leadership to implement needed changes.

■ Inadequate mitigation of identified risks at the outset of the procurement.

“The Air Force continually and systematically failed to adhere to BPR [business process re-engineering] guidelines, causing major problems that crippled the program,” the report said.

For example, when the contractor, CSC, urged the Air Force to change its business processes to be more efficient and reflect best practices, the Air Force resisted and instead asked CSC to customize the software to meet existing processes, thereby losing any gains in efficiency.

Likewise, there was no champion for the program among Air Force leadership to guide ECSS from start to finish. Frequent turnover of acquisition personnel was another problem. Poor or no training meant new personnel lacked understanding of ECSS’s design elements, so decisions took longer.

And the Air Force’s risk management strategy failed to mitigate identified risks, and the Air Force failed to apply basic acquisition best practices such as clearly defining the system’s requirements, the Senate report said.

Many of the problems that sabotaged ECSS are at play in other Defense Department ERP programs — namely, the Navy ERP system, the Air Force’s Defense Enterprise Account and Management System, and the Marine Corps’ Common Aviation Command and Control System. All suffer extensive schedule delays and costs increases in the billions.

As agencies increasingly move toward enterprise-scale IT modernizations and consolidations, the use of effective BPR practices will be ever more critical. So federal executives from all disciplines must be aware of what those effective practices are, as well as what the warning signs of failure look like. And when they spot those warning signs, they must demonstrate leadership and speak up.

Finally, lawmakers must acknowledge their own culpability as well. It was Congress, after all, that forked over more than $$1 billion to the ECSS program over eight years, even as auditors repeatedly warned of problems.

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