Facing the Strange Changes

March 2, 2011
By H. Mosher

In this month's Incoming column, Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), discusses the difficulties of change, whether it involves renovating his home or upgrading government information technology:

At our home, we planned for years and hired a general contractor experienced in managing large renovation projects. However, he never could know everything about the house, nor could he anticipate the legacy changes and problems left over from multiple owners, previous renovations and earlier decisions. He may have been good, but he could not possibly foresee all of the idiosyncrasies that exist in a historic structure or the issues that we would face. Every opened wall would be an adventure. How do you budget for unknown factors of these types?

Once again, I was amazed at how very similar this process was to our maintenance and upgrading of government information technology systems. The government issues requests for proposals (RFPs) and hires experienced contractors. What security risks are embedded? Who wrote and owns the original code? Do our upgrades affect new requirements and policies? What happens if we shut down this system; what and who is affected? Do we have the budget? Do the defense contractors "know all of the idiosyncrasies that exist in a legacy system?" How could they possibly understand years of business rules, modifications and home-grown upgrades?

He relates the story of how, while renovating his home, he discovered a French Quarter fireplace behind plaster that changed his plans for a new master bathroom--but in so doing, made the location of a bulky air conditioner unit problematic. Since he'd invested quite a bit of money in placing that A/C unit, he was very stubborn about having to move it again. But doing so was the only way to make everything work. That, he says, is often a problem in government IT procurement:

What is the proverbial air conditioner in our government and business systems that we are not willing to move, even though it would make everything work? Did we invest in a technology a few years ago that now doesn't scale, but we are not willing to move from our previous decision and continue to throw good money at a wrong decision? For the Military Health System, perhaps it is TRICARE On-Line. For the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, maybe it is VISTA. For the Navy, perhaps it is the Navy/Marine Corps Intranet (NMCI) or the Integrated Shipboard Network System (ISNS). Maybe they all work well, but just need to be updated and "moved" to make things work.

Read What Is the What Is the Air Conditioner We're Not Willing to Move? and share your own ideas on what technology we need to stop paying for and move on to better solutions.

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