With NGEN, It's Déjà Vu All Over Again
In the late 1990s, the U.S. Navy decided it needed to change the way it handled information technology. So, it created the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet, or NMCI. Yes, for many, it was seen as a four-letter word. With the NMCI, the Navy elected to outsource the entire program to industry—the company EDS. The process took many years of study and analysis, as well as dealing with policy, procedure, culture wars and a host of other common barriers to any new concept. From congressional oversight to acquisition nightmare, every potential roadblock emerged. Yet, the NMCI was implemented, and one lesson from that implementation applies very much today as the Navy seeks to upgrade its information technology.
The NMCI program goals were very clear: replace diverse Navy networks with a single enterprisewide network that had a common look and feel to the desktop; create an ashore information infrastructure that would allow conversion to e-business models of common “corporate applications” and databases; and allow for the implementation of Public Key Infrastructure, or PKI, records management and other “corporate” initiatives while providing enhanced security. Most importantly, it had to be affordable within the existing Navy budget—simple stuff! It was felt that the Navy should concentrate on its core competencies of warfighting and not on building information technology skills. A byproduct of the program was that many talented sailors and Marines took their information technology skills into the commercial sector, and the Navy transferred this capability to industry.
With these goals in mind, the plan was that, from the keyboard in, the entire infrastructure, storage, technology, help desk and every facet of the program would be managed by an industry partner. Essentially, it was the old phone company model: you do not own your phone, the wires, the back office, the technicians, the switches, the overhead or any other aspect of phone service; you only control and manage what takes place on the phone. The phone company did not care what you did on the phone—it just guaranteed a dial tone and the ability to make and receive a call. If your phone broke, the company replaced it. If new phones came out and you were due for an upgrade—though the only real upgrades were from rotary to digital—then you received one. You paid for a level of service, and the phone company controlled everything else about the process.
The phone company also chose the vendors that supported it in providing that service, and it managed that process. You dealt only with the phone company. If you wanted additional services, you certainly could just define just what you wanted, the phone company gave you a price and, if it was possible, then you could obtain that service. That was the model that was chosen for the NMCI: a guarantee that the network would have connectivity and that it would work.
The implementation of a major service network managed by a single vendor that in turn could decide who could and could not play in the world of the NMCI caused great heartburn for those who felt they were locked out for the term of the contract. There is little doubt that by awarding a contract to a single vendor to supply and control such a vast investment, the Navy generated an outcry and frustration on the part of other companies who wanted in on the business. Perhaps these pressures are the reasons that the Navy and Marine Corps are pursuing an endeavor such as the Next Generation Enterprise Network (NGEN)—to open the world to corporate competition on a system that is working very well and has achieved most of its intended goals.
Many problems certainly existed in the early days of the NMCI and in the manner in which it was rolled out across the enterprise. There were many cultural divides, program delays, major problems and lessons learned along the way. People left the Navy, business as usual was impossible and many incredible growing pains took place at every level. Telling the two-stars to call the help desk if their PCs were not working was certainly a different way of handling VIP concerns. In spite of all the issues, the NMCI essentially was a success and achieved most of the goals for which it was designed. Early on, annual meetings held among initial users originally required the need for proverbial flak jackets for speakers and those responsible for the program. Now there is little-to-no drama; technical issues are discussed; and the NMCI is just another network.
The team that was put in place—the NMCI Strike Force, followed by multiple name changes—worked incredibly hard at rolling out an extremely complex system with a customer that fought it at every turn. The standard quip was: What do you get when you blend cutting-edge technology with Navy policy? The NMCI! The vendor could work only within the policies and rules that governed the contract. Policies did not exist for many of the innovations or requirements. Governance was emerging, and no one ever had managed such a vast enterprise with so many diverse commands and needs.
The early years were beyond painful; yet now the NMCI is a standard, and essentially most of the problems have been resolved within the constraints of policy, procedure and security—three very difficult masters.
Ten years later, the NMCI contract has expired and the continuity of service agreement is in place, so the Navy and Marine Corps are moving toward NGEN. It is interesting now that these services are struggling to find that same government talent to implement the transfer of the exact same system from the hands of industry back into the control and management of the government. It seems like an extremely expensive drill that was just completed in the opposite direction.
The Navy spent the first three to four years of the NMCI program changing the desktop from control of the government to the management of industry. Now it appears that it is on the verge of spending a few years shifting the desktop back to the other side of the desk, from industry management to government control.
Is this a good use of taxpayer money? I think not. Sometimes we get it just about right, and the NMCI approach may be one of those times.
Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), is the president and chief executive officer of Grace and Associates LLC and a former chief information officer for Navy Medicine. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of SIGNAL Magazine.