Project Failure of VCF


The FBI – Federal Bureau Investigation as an organization is headed by a director who is usually appointed by the President and then further confirmed by the Senate. The current director of FBI is Robert S. Mueller, III, who was appointed as the director on September 4, 2001Kessler, Ronald (1993).

The total number of employees working in FBI are 30,000 that include approximately 12,000 Special agents and remaining 18000 are professional staff employees Kessler, Ronald (1993). The main FBI headquarter is located in the J. Edgar Hoover Building on Pennsylvania avenue in Washington D.C. The job role of special agents and other professionals working at headquarter is to direct, organize and coordinate FBI activities around the world Williams, David (1981).

FBI core investigative and intelligence work is based on their 56 field offices and their other 400 satellite offices are known as resident agencies. Most of the field offices are located in major metropolitan areas and they are responsible for all FBI operations in their defined geographic region Powers, Richard Gid (1983). In addition to the FBI field offices across United States the organization has more than 45 offices around the world that are known as “legats”. The total budget for FBI in the fiscal year of 2005 was approximately $5.9 billion that include $425 million in net program increases to enhance Counterterrorism, Counterintelligence, Cybercrime, Information Technology, Security, Forensics, Training, and Criminal Programs Powers, Richard Gid (1983).

In order to be able to understand why the VCF ‘Virtual Case File’ was very important, it is necessary to understand the FBI. And to understand the FBI one has to understand its organization and its agents Williams, David (1981). FBI has 23 divisions in total that are based on counterintelligence, criminal investigation and cybercrime. All the divisions falls under the control of five executive assistant directors who are responsible for intelligence, counterterrorism and counterintelligence, criminal investigations, overall law enforcements services (such as labs and training). Usually all the divisions have their own IT budget and system depending on their requirements and specifications. And because divisions had the freedom and money to develop their own software, the FBI now has 40 to 50 different investigative databases and applications, many duplicating the functions and information found in others Kessler, Ronald (1993). FBI field work agent work as part of a squad, where each squad has a supervisor whose role is to report to the assistant special agent in charge.


The FBI’s Virtual Case File

The New appointment of Depew’s to the FBI’s VCF team was an auspicious start to what would become the most highly publicized software failure in history. The VCF was supposed to automate the FBI’s paper-based work environment, allow agents and intelligence analysts to share vital investigative information in a short span of time, and replace the obsolete Automated Case Support (ACS) system which was almost outdated. Instead, the FBI claims, the VCF’s contractor, Science Applications International Corp. (SAIC), in San Diego, delivered 700 000 lines of code that were full of bug-ridden and functionally off target, this past April, as a result the bureau had to scrap the US $170 million project, including $105 million worth of unusable code that were delivered by SAIC Joelle. A, 2010. However at the same time, various government and other independent reports show that the FBI—lacking IT management and technical expertise—shares the blame for the project’s failure.

In a devastating 81-page audit, released in 2005, Glenn A. Fine, the U.S. Department of Justice’s inspector general, described eight factors that contributed to the VCF’s failure Joelle. A, 2010. Among the eight factors: poorly defined and slowly evolving design requirements; overly ambitious schedules; and the lack of a plan to guide hardware purchases, network deployments, and software development for the bureau were highlighted. Fine concluded that four years after terrorists crashed jetliners into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, the FBI, which had been criticized for not “connecting the dots” in time to prevent the attacks, still did not have the software necessary to connect any new dots that might come along. And won’t for years to come, mainly because of improper planning and lack of supervision.

According to Fine, “The archaic Automated Case ACC Support system—which some agents have avoided using—is cumbersome, inefficient, and limited in its capabilities, and does not manage, link, research, analyze, and share information as effectively or timely as needed by the agents. “[T]he continued delays in developing the VCF affect the FBI’s ability to carry out its critical missions.”

Recently FBI made a new addition, “investigative data warehouse” that enable FBI to combine several of the FBI’s crime and evidence database into one and made them available to agents Joelle. A, 2010. As FBI prepare itself to spend hundreds of millions more on the development of software over the next several years, there are few questions arise as to how exactly the VCF went so terribly wrong and whether a debacle of even bigger proportions looms on the horizon. Despite high-profile Congressional hearings, hundreds of pages of reports being made, and countless anguished articles in the trade press and mainstream media, the inner workings of the project and the major players have remained largely invisible. Now, detailed interviews with people directly involved with the VCF paint a picture of an enterprise IT project that fell into the most basic traps of software development, from poor planning to bad communication internally and externally.

Existing Technology

FBI developed a plan, known as Trilogy, even before the attacks of 911 in order to address its chronic technology problems.  The Trilogy program was made up of three main components: a new computer network, thousands of new personal computer stations and, at its heart, the software system that would come to be known as VCF ‘virtual case file’ (Goldstein. H, 2005). The basic purpose of Trilogy was to make an environment for FBI agents who can work without any papers, be able to search files in less time, pull up photos and scan for information at their own PCs Goldstein. H, 2005. Whereas the old system that was in use of FBI was based on fusty mainframe technology, with a text-only ‘green screen’ which will only search any material with the help of key words and could not store or display any graphics at all, not even photos or scanned copies of reports.

Most importantly majority of the FBI agents didn’t have access to PC’s, they were heavily relied on instead on shared computers for access to the internet and e-mail. If they want to upload any document or share between other computers it usually took them 12 steps to complete the process.

Because of the complexities and time consumption many agents used to avoid using the system, prefer to rely more on paper work and secretaries. It won’t be wrong to say that technologically FBI was trapped in the 1980’s technology. According to Greg Gandolfo who spent most of his 18-year FBI career investigating financial crimes and public corruption cases in Chicago, Little Rock and Los Angeles, said ‘For agents to get information into or out of the system was a big challenge’.

Greg also mentioned that the biggest drawback in using the old system is the amount of time it takes to handle paperwork and input data. “From the case agent’s point of view, you want to be freed up to do the casework, to do the investigations, to do the intelligence,” he said. In the beginning the overall software project had relatively modest goals, and very minimal costs, however when SAIC win the contract in June 2001 by beating other four competitors one of the representative of the company said “it would be earning $14 million in the first year of a three-year deal to update the FBI’s case-management system.

As far as the SAIC is concern, for them the contract was relatively minor. SAIC, owned by 40,000 employee shareholders, is one of the nation’s largest government contractors. The 9/11 attacks were a blessing to its fortune, helping to boost its annual revenue, now more than $7 billion Kessler, Ronald (1993). The impact of the attacks on FBI was equally significant but certainly less auspicious. As revelations emerged that the bureau had missed clues that could have revealed the plot, its image suffered. Its long-outdated information technology systems drew particular scrutiny Kessler, Ronald (1993).

“Prior to 9/11, the FBI did not have an adequate ability to know what it knew,” a report by the staff of the Sept. 11 commission concluded. “The FBI’s primary information management system that was in use at the time of 9/11, designed using 1980s technology that already obsolete when installed in 1995, limited the Bureau’s ability to share its information internally and externally.”

One big example of the old technology that was in use by FBI can be considered when FBI wanted to transmit photographs of the 19 Sept. 11 hijackers and other suspects to field offices, headquarters had to fax copies or send compact discs by mail, because the system would not allow them to e-mail a photo securely (Goldstein. H, 2005). After the 9/11 attacks, the software development became the top priority for the organization, deadlines were moved up, requirements were much more now and at the same time the costs were ballooned.

At the same time FBI made a fateful choice: It allowed SAIC to build the new software system from scratch rather than modifying commercially available, off-the-shelf software, mainly because of the custom requirements and special features that was required by FBI. Later, the company would say the FBI made that decision independently; FBI officials countered that SAIC pushed them into it.

More than two years after the attacks of Sept. 11, when a team of researchers from the National Research Council showed up to review the status of Trilogy, it was assured to them by FBI officials that the bureau had made great strides. That was true in part: By early 2004, two of the three main pillars of the program — thousands of new PCs and an integrated hardware network — were well on the way to being delivered and installed.

However, it was realized by the researchers that the heart of the makeover, VCF ‘virtual case file’, is still off track. In its final report, in May 2004, the NRC team warned that the program was “currently not on a path to success.”

The final report observed that the rollout of the new case-management software had been poorly planned by the officials nearly from the beginning. Months after the program was supposed to be complete, it remained riddled with shortcomings:

Eggen. D, Witte. Et al.  2006

  • The FBI Agents would not be able to take copies of their cases into the field for reference.
  • The program lacked common features, such as bookmarking or histories that would help agents navigate through millions of files.
  • The system could not properly sort data.
  • Most important, the FBI planned to launch the new software all at once, with minimal testing beforehand. Doing so, the NRC team concluded, could cause “mission-disruptive failures” if the software did not work, because the FBI had no backup plan.

“That was a little bit horrifying,” said Matt Blaze, a professor of computer science at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the review team. “A bunch of us were planning on committing a crime spree the day they switched over. If the new system didn’t work, it would have just put the FBI out of business.”

Importance of the Project Plan

A project plan is a formal, written document that is used to prepare for, manage and control a project (Söderlund, J, 2002). The project plan forms the basis for all management efforts associated with a project. It is a document that is also expected to change over time. The information associated with the plan evolves as the project moves through its various stages and is to be updated as new information unfolds about the project in the Execution Phase (Söderlund, J, 2002).

FBI’s Virtual Case File project failed in between 2001 and 2005. The Virtual Case File project of FBI was part of a larger initiative called Trilogy. The project costs overran by 89% or just over $200M. A project that should have taken 3 years to be completed, but in reality it took 4 years and failed with requirements still not met. According to the analysis done by the Inspector General, draws on a very detailed report, but here we focus explicitly on the project management failings.

The FBI’s Trilogy project contained three parts:

  1. Upgrading software and hardware for FBI agents
  2. Upgrading the FBI’s overall communications network
  3. Significantly upgrading the FBI’s case management system (Virtual Case File) to enable better access to, and sharing of, case-related information across the FBI

The first two elements of the project were completed on time, not perfectly or all that impressively, but roughly as planned. However, the main aspect of the project, the Virtual Case File project experienced major cost and schedule overruns and never achieved its objectives. It is widely used as an example of a failed IT project in the US history.

There are various reasons for the failure of VCF project.

Vague and inappropriate requirements

Trilogy’s design requirements were mainly ill-defined and not all the requirements were provided in the beginning.

Regardless of the project size one of the most difficult aspects of any project is defining its’ scope (Turner, J. R, 1993). In case of large projects like VCF project scope management is one of the most important and first tasks that anyone must do as a project manager or as a project leader. The purpose of the project scope is to provide a clear and refined description of:

  • The project goal
  • What is to be achieved
  • How is it to be achieved
  • Who will achieve it
  • When it will be achieved, and
  • With what resources.

The scope of the project was not clearly defined by the FBI or by the people who were responsible of the project, the political climate created after the September 11 attacks increased a  lot of pressure on the project to produce results faster (regardless of what was feasible) Turner, J. R, 1993. According to one report on the project. “Trilogy’s scope grew by about 80 percent after it was first initiated.” Of course, if scope is increasing faster than work is being complete, it will be impossible for any project to finish on time and with actual requirements.

Following the definition of project scope and objective, there are activities associated with time to create a project schedule. The project schedule provides a graphical representation of predicted tasks, milestones, dependencies, resource requirements, task duration, and deadlines that the organization or people involved in the task might want to achieve. The project’s schedule inter-relates all tasks on a common time scale so they can be achieved easily.

Like the development of each of the project plan components, it is important to develop a schedule which is an iterative process. Milestones may suggest additional tasks that might be required to complete, tasks may require additional resources, and task completion may be measured by additional milestones. For large, complex projects like Virtual Case File, detailed sub-schedules may be required to show an adequate level of detail.

The scheduling for the Virtual Case File project was heavily focused on what was desired by the organization and not what was possible.


Initiation is about committing the organisation to begin a project, or to move on to the next phase of a large project (Hobday, M, 2000). FBI took the initiation for the VCF project but they never progressed to the next stage, an important output of this process is the project charter, which is an important document for formally recognising the existence of a project and giving a brief overview. Main reason for not going to the next stage was mainly because of the uncertainty and complexity of the project.

Cost – contracting

The interests of the FBI and the contractors working on the project were not aligned, one organization was interested in getting the job done on time, whereas at the same time on the other hand the other organizations were interested economically (Hobday, M, 2000). “The cost-plus-award-fee type of contract used for Trilogy that was used…did not require specific completion milestones and did not provide for penalties if the milestones were not completed on time.” Possibly, this is a result of vague scope that was provided by people in charge, but in addition to vague language the incentives created by cost plus pricing, made it hard for the FBI to hold their contractors accountable.

Lack of leadership

Initially, a project manager was appointed only late into the project where it should have been appointed earlier, the FBI cycled through 5 people in the CIO role in 4 years and accountability appears generally absent due to “decision making by committees instead of knowledgeable individuals.” In addition to a lack of accountability at the contractor level, there was a need for clearer accountability within the FBI.


  • Söderlund, J, 2002, ‘Managing complex development project: arenas, knowledge processes and time. R&D Management Blackwell Publishers Ltd. 32(5), 419-439
  • Turner, J. R. 1993, The handbook of project-based management. Londra: McGraw-Hill,.
  • Williams, David (1981). “The Bureau of Investigation and its Critics 1919 – 1921: the origin of Federal Political Surveillance”. Journal of American History (organization of American Historians) 68 (3): 560 – 579


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