A Brick in the Wall
The Office of the Inspector General, Department of Homeland Security, has looked at how far the US has progressed since 2004 towards being able to detect whether the nation was under a biological attack. Progress has apparently been disappointing. The idea behind it was simple. Since 2001 individual government agencies had been preparing to detect and respond to a biological attack, but all these efforts existed as data "islands". The idea was to create an information system that would tie these separate islands together so the system could be queried as a whole.
Since 2001, federal agencies collectively have spent an estimated $32 billion on electronic surveillance systems and various other IT initiatives to address bio-defense. ...Although these individual programs have helped in gathering and reviewing sector-specific data, the federal government has had no single system for consolidating and examining bio-surveillance across federal, state, and local lines.
The schematic below shows how the National Bio-Surveillance Integration System project was trying to tie together information from different agencies into one coherent environment. Standing as it was on the outside of the major bureaucracies, the result was that the project became nobody's child. The report says, "Although the program began with a clear mandate, strong support, and a strategy for accomplishing the presidential direction, for various reasons NBIS ownership has shifted among department organizations numerous times, with corresponding fluctuations in the program approach, priority, and accomplishments. In addition, NBIS has struggled since its inception to secure the staff needed to manage program activities effectively."
With the excitement of the initial mandate behind them there was encouraging progress. But as control over the project rotated among the agencies it inevitably fell into the lap of an agency with neither the interest or money to keep up the momentum. At that moment the interagency child became an orphan.
NBIS initially flourished under the leadership of the Science and Technology Directorate. ... Due to its transfer to the former Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection (IAIP) Directorate in January 2005, the NBIS program lost momentum generated during the Science and Technology design study phase. The program appointed a new program manager, a contractor to oversee NBIS development, but this official had minimal assistance. Because the program received limited office space, the program manager was hindered in efforts to bring on board additional staff or detailees to assist with activities such as stakeholder outreach, contract management, and information analysis.
Once it had lost its path the challenge became to get it back on track again. Every now and again, a passing political comet would shed a fitful light on the darkened path. People would take a few steps back toward the road. Then the comet would pass and the darkness would resume it's Stygian reign. Extracts from the Inspector General's report illustrate some of the problems encountered. Money could not be found. People could not be hired. Independent agencies could not be strong-armed into cooperation.
Program officials said that prior to the President’s speech, they sensed no urgency by Preparedness leadership to promote a functioning NBIS program. However, following the President’s speech, the program received additional support in terms of office space and contract personnel. For example, an NBIS management official explained that the program was assigned office space in a secure location, affording program management not only ample room to work and house additional staff, but also the facilities needed to handle potentially sensitive bio-defense information. ...
However, the additional resources alone were not adequate to help move the program forward to contract award without further setbacks. For example, as the NBIS program prepared in early 2006 to issue a request for proposals for NBIS 2.0 development, the Office of Procurement Operations assigned a new contracting officer to the program. This official tasked the NBIS program to refine the proposal language, thereby delaying the contract by several months. ...
For example, it was not until May 2006, when the program was under the auspices of Preparedness, that a full-time DHS program manager was assigned. Prior to this time, for about one and half years, the program was led by a detailee, who encountered roadblocks in obtaining needed information and working through unfamiliar DHS processes to carry out assigned program management responsibilities. As an external agency employee, this official also had problems getting the hiring authority to bring additional staff into DHS.
There was even some dispute about which direction they were circling in. Nobody could say how far behind the NBIS was since no one had defined a way to measure progress.
Without a tactical plan to guide program directions and decisions, NBIS program managers have been managing in an ad hoc manner. For example, without clear program milestones, NBIS managers have been unable to track accomplishment of program activities or monitor progress toward meeting long-term goals. An NBIS official cautioned that the program must first define its “as is” and “to be” architectures before management can establish milestones for measuring program progress.
Meanwhile the programmers were at work. The question was what to work at. Owing to the changes in management the information system contractors were forced to design a system in which they were neither sure of what was coming in nor what was going out. Because no data sharing arrangements could be reached with the agencies, after the contractor had finished the software it had to be tested on the basis of data gleaned over the Internet. No real data could be found to input.
By this time, the contactor had begun system development and needed interagency bio-surveillance information to populate NBIS and test its operations. ... In the absence of interagency agreements, program officials have not been able to secure the federal data needed to test or develop the NBIS system. To proceed with some level of system development until the federal data is acquired, the program pursued open source information to populate the NBIS database. As a result, as of March 2007, the NBIS system contained only publicly available information, such as reports from the World Health Organization, the Organization for Animal Health, and the European Commission, which can be obtained via the internet.
The Inspector General's report provides a glimpse into how gigantic bureaucracies work. Those who wonder at how early warning of a biological attack on the nation can be left to such a constipated process should consider that many of the things our lives depend on -- national security, diplomatic representation, law enforcement, etc -- are provided in the same desultory fashion. Einstein once wrote that "the eternally incomprehensible about the world is its comprehensibility"; and perhaps the most miraculous thing about government is that it works at all. But like all miracles, it's better not to expect them to happen too often.