Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Snake Oil

Hey, Mainstream Media, I can play six-degrees of separation, too!

Jack Abramoff has a Bacon Number of "3"
Jack Abramoff was in those photos with George W. Bush
George W. Bush was in Last Party 2000 (2001) with Tim Robbins (I)
Tim Robbins (I) was in Mystic River(2004) (TV) with Kevin Bacon
(Courtesy The Oracle of Bacon at UVA Computer Science Department)

So I guess the "culture of corruption" continues to spread as we find even seemingly innocent politicans accused of wrongdoing. Like Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), who is not so much bad, but part of the military appropriations problem.

Whenever we get a new toy in the Navy, everybody talks about it and regurgitates all the bullet points used to sell it to the brass. We just love it when things can be broken down into easily digestible PowerPoint slides, but I digress.

Just after I reported to shore duty in 2003, my command was, uh, outfitted (for lack of a better term) with Navy-Marine Corps Intranet. See, every command has a LAN for e-mail and Internet and such, but we've been unable to really "share" data and information that way. So the folks up top envisioned a service-wide intranet that would allow everyone access to all the data they needed. (This is separate for our "knowledge portal", which I'll have to tell you about some other time.)

NMCI doesn't work. Well, to be more specific, NMCI doesn't work for me, guys like me or your average sailor. NMCI is a toy for shore-duty types and the bird farms (carriers and big-deck expeditionary warfare ships). And the way the people who serve in those areas think is that because they have something, everybody has it. Like me, department head on frigate X. Not only do I have it, but it works beautifully.

NMCI is a system with a single-point of failure. The technicians at each command have no control over the system, it's centrally controlled. So if you can't log in, or your system doesn't work, you have to call in to help desk, submit a trouble call and wait. My first experience with NMCI left me without e-mail at work (you must understand how extremely dependent we are on e-mail) for three weeks. What do you think happens when the Admiral's NMCI terminal hiccups and he can't read his e-mail? It gets fixed IMMEDIATELY. So, as far as the Admiral, who has a dedicated terminal and doesn't need to log on through a portal on Internet Explorer that works about 50% of the time, is concerned the system is a resounding success.

So you'll understand why I'm not surprised to read this article in USA Today:
MCI has been a major subcontractor since 2000 on an $8.8 billion project to build a secure computer network for the Navy and Marines. According to a House Appropriations Committee report in 2002, the program had "been unstable since its inception in 1999."

The committee report noted the program's cost overruns, schedule delays and management foul-ups in its report accompanying the 2003 defense spending bill, also sponsored by Lewis. That report called for more and better testing of the program before more computers were added to the network.
I don't know a lot about Rep. Jerry Lewis (R-CA), but it sounds like he had a bad feeling about the program too. Now the smear machine is revving up to steamroll him over it. Holy hellfire! Tell us about it, Jerry!
I accept the fact that as chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, I should be subject to very close scrutiny. But I would hope that a publication of the stature and national prominence of USA TODAY would provide its readers with a complete picture of how a policy decision was made ("The congressman & the hedge fund," Cover story, News, Thursday).

The fact in this case is that I have never had a discussion in any context with representatives of Cerberus Capital Management or WorldCom about the Navy-Marine Corps Intranet. This includes all lobbyists, company representatives or anyone else connected with those firms. In fact, I was unaware of the connection between Cerberus and the NMCI until it was pointed out by USA TODAY. Any fair and impartial story would have included this unequivocal statement near the beginning of a story. To be clear, I flatly told USA TODAY I had never discussed this with anyone connected with Cerberus, period.
The only thing I fault the honorable Rep. Lewis with at this point is not hiring a better company than freakin' MCI to build our Intranet, or more accurately subcontract our Intranet. This case will be in MBA e-commerce textbooks for years to come.

More...
The Navy in 1999 proposed a program by which it would bring order out of the communication chaos caused by nearly 100,000 different systems in use by Navy and Marine Corps personnel. Congress authorized this plan, and the Navy chose Electronic Data Systems (EDS) as its primary contractor after a competitive bidding process.

In 2002, the Navy proposed expanding this program to include up to 100,000 more "stations." Questions were raised both inside and outside the Pentagon about problems the system was facing and whether it was advisable to expand it to that level. The Defense Appropriations Subcommittee staff investigated the problems and recommended that our bill would require a delay in the expansion until the Navy and EDS could show that the program was ready to move forward. We included that limitation in the fiscal year 2003 appropriations bill, which was passed by the House of Representatives and Senate and signed by the president.
The general progression of the program is available in both articles. Lewis says the Navy claims the program is big success. Well, sure we do. Whether it actually does what what want it to do doesn't matter as long as somebody at the top thinks it does.

Well, I hate it when people, including me throw out a problem without a potential solution to follow it up, remember: it's all about ideas! This is indeed a problem that needed solving. I'm painfully aware of the bidding process that gets things bought in the military, but can we not select a quality product from someone who maybe costs a little more? Am I wrong, here, or don't IBM or Microsoft have a lots of experience in business solutions? Why buy from the company that has people going to jail for mismanagement (MCI WorldCom, not EDS). You know we're sitting on 200,000 gallons of fuel, a full arsenal and a thing that has 270,000 moving parts built by the lowest bidder. Makes you feel good, doesn't it? Could we at least buy an Intranet from someone who knows how to make an Intranet work?

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