Systemic Effects of Information Systems. Analysis of FBI's Virtual Case File Failure

Academic Paper, 2016
23 Pages, Grade: 18 (90%)



1. Introduction

2. The Federal Bureau of Investigation

3. Problem statement

4. Analysis of failure

5. Analysis of the Causes leading to the Failure

6. Recommendation

7. Conclusion



The FBI started building up a case administration programming framework called the Virtual Case File (VCF) system in 2000. The main reason to develop this program was to modernize the bureau's outdated information technology infrastructure. The cost of this system was assessed to be over $500 million still it failed, as in 2006 the FBI initiated the development of a new project - Sentinel. However, the focus relies exclusively on the VCF system in this paper. Thus, a description of the organization, the FBI, is provided first, followed by the initial reasons of the project, the proof and a contextual analysis of the failure of the system as well as recommendations.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) is the United States’ prime domestic federal law enforcement agency as well as the government’s largest counterterrorism and counterintelligence agency in American soil. It is the principal investigative arm of the U.S. Department of Justice and a full member of the U.S. Intelligence Community. The FBI is headquartered at the J. Edgar Hoover Building in Washington, D.C. It has 56 field offices centrally located in major cities across the U.S. and Puerto Rico. Within these field offices are a total of about 380 resident agencies located in smaller cities and towns. Its global offices—called legal attachés or legats—are located in U.S. embassies. For fiscal year 2017, FBI has requested a budget which includes a total of $8.7 billion for salaries and expenses of 34,768 positions (12,892 special agents, 2,999 intelligence analysts, and 18,877 professional staff), and $783.5 million for construction.

The FBI's main goal is to protect and defend the United States, to uphold and enforce the criminal laws of the United States, and to provide leadership and criminal justice services to federal, state, municipal, and international agencies and partners. Its top priorities including investigations of domestic and international terrorism, foreign counterintelligence, cyber-crime, public corruption, civil rights, organized crimes, white-collar crime, violent crimes and major offenders, and applicant matters. It is organized into the Office of the Director and six functional branches. The Office of the Director serves as the central administrative organ of the FBI. The office provides staff support functions (such as finance and facilities management) to branches and the various field divisions (see appendix 1).1

In 1995, the FBI introduced a new information management system, the Automated Case support (ASC) system. This system was already obsolete even new because it used 1980s era “green screen” technology. The system was not able to store or display pictures, scanned copies of reports or even graphics. It was a text-only data that had to be searched with keywords. A basic research required at least 10 keywords. Moreover, most of the FBI’s employees had no PCs. They used common computers for access the internet. To report anything an agent needed to write a memo calling an electronic communication, then printed out the paper in order to get a supervisor signature before to send it. This process was very cumbersome; it took about 12 steps to upload a single document2. A lot of agents preferred using filling cabinets or secretaries. All this bureaucracy was an efficiency problem for the FBI. Their agent lost precious time to collect and to share data. The FBI wanted to implement a new information management system more performing than the actual one. In the mid-2001, the FBI launched a new project: The Trilogy project. This project was composed of three different phases. The first and second phases’ purposes were to upgrading hardware and standard software for FBI agents and the FBI’s communication network. Those two phases will include a high speed and secure network, to permit the fast and easy data sharing between the FBI offices around the country and the world and a secure communication. It will also require new equipment such as modern desktop computers with the latest software, new printers, scanners, and routers. The final phase was the creation and implementation of the Virtual File Case (VCF). The VCF system started as an UAC (User Application Component) which was a case management application for improving efficiency and record management. The FBI’s agents needed a user-friendly format for inputting investigative and intelligence information on their computers. The UAC was initiated to satisfy this need, the agents would be able to directly input their information on their PCs, receive electronic approvals, and upload it into the database where it would be ready to avail to others FBI’s employees. Nevertheless, UAC is not a database or analytical tool used to connect the dots; it will only make it easier and faster for the agent to input and share the dots3.

On the 11th of September in year 2001, the United States were the victim of a terrorist attack. According to Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (Vt.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Judiciary Committee “We had information that could have stopped 9/11. […] It was sitting there and was not acted upon”4. The FBI was under pressure and criticized by the media and the public opinion to not have been able to prevent the attack because of the incapacity of their information system. After the attack, Müller, the director of the FBI, changed the goal from developing a web interface application onto the ACS (Automated Case Support) into developing a completely new case management system. The new information system would include a new database, which could host different types of data such as documents, photos and audios recordings, graphical user interface and applications allowing the agents to search and find correlations between other cases and their own.5 The implementation of the VCF became one of the bureau’s top priorities mainly because of this pressure but also because of the potential terrorist attacks which threaten the country. The deadlines were moved up and the requirements grew. The FBI expected to implement successfully the VCF system by 2003.

After the VCF project started in 2000, several actions throughout the project indicated vital development issues. For example, several requests to increase the budget had been arranged, such as in 2002 when the FBI requested for additional $70 million to accelerate Trilogy project. The Congress even approved of $78 million and SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation) finally delivered the VCF on December 2003, but only to have it declared dead on arrival (DOA)6. Zalmai Azmi, FBI’s CIO at that time, rejected the VCF delivered by SAIC and found 17 “functional deficiencies” that they need the SAIC to fix before the deployment of the system. In 2005, the United States House of Representatives reported that there were both big and small deficiencies appeared.7 Nevertheless, the SAIC argued that some of the deficiencies were the changes in the requirements FBI made during the development of the program. Meanwhile, when the SAIC tried to fix the bugs, the Depew’s team tests exposed an additional 400 deficiencies. Later, the SAIC demanded for one more year to fixed all the bugs and changes with additional cost at $56 million, but Azmi rejected the offer eventually (see appendix 2).8

Overall, the VCF proved to be the FBI’s most troublesome IT challenge in the Trilogy project and after more than three years of the development process with more than $170 million spent, the project was abandoned and little later replaced by the “Sentinel” project9.

Structure, people, process and information technology, those are the four components every information system consists of. It is of significant importance to understand the characteristics of the sociotechnical system (social and technical system) as within this system, all four components are subject to the systemic effect and are therefore interdependent and affect each other (see appendix 3). In the following, the four components of the information system will be used to analyze the failure of the VCF system including the aspects leading to the failure.

Overall, the VCF system should have brought a third order change or transformative change. This type of change requires not only disruptions in the components people, process and technology but also in the organizational structure and therefore affecting the entire sociotechnological system (see Appendix 4).

The people component of an information system refers to all people involved with the project; therefore, in this case, it includes FBI’s and SAIC’s officers and personnel who oversaw developing the VCF system in the Trilogy project. The obstacles in the people component that cause the failure in VCF project are of the following: Lack of qualified technical and management skills in personnel, inexperienced team members, and lack of communication skills. Several reports from the government and independent researchers show that the FBI lacked of IT management skills and technical expertise10. The personnel involved in the VCF project included software engineers, program managers, and contract managers. Although the VCF was a huge project with massive investment from the congress, there was still a lack of qualified personnel that should, undoubtedly, be an expert in the specific field in order to act upon the project effectively and efficiently11. The lack of skill set came along with no prior experience concerning IT projects. Both, managers and engineers were inexpert, as they had little or no formal training in computer science. Some of the managers and engineers were just graduated from high school and therefore had only theoretical experience regarding of tremendous IT project.12 For example, Larry Depew who was appointed as the VCF project manager by Sherry Higgins immediately after she joined. Sherry Higgins was the seasoned IT program manager, who was supposed to create the Office of Program Management, she would be centralizing the IT management and overseeing the most expensive, complex, and risky projects, while managing the Trilogy project.13 The lack of skill set in personnel slowed down the process of the project. Thus, this leads to many issues including a high labor turnover. The FBI was facing this during the Trilogy program especially with respect to managers and Chief Information Officers (CIO). Earlier in September 2000, during the time when the project was used to be called the “FBI Information Technology Upgrade Project” under the guidance of the FBI Director Louis Freeh; the FBI did not have a CIO yet.14 Later in December 2003, an interim CIO of the FBI was appointed to Zalmai Azmi, who later became the official FBI CIO in May 2004.15 Before appointing Azmi as the FBI’s CIO, the FBI previously employed Bob Dies, Mark Tanner, and Darwin as CIO. The change of three CIOs happened all at once in the summer of 2002. However, the situation became better when Azmi joined as CIO, as he embedded himself into daily operation activities of the project and worked closely with the project manager, unlike the previous three CIOs16. However, the high labor turnover caused difficulties in communicating inside the FBI and between the FBI and SAIC, as they were unable to communicate effectively.


1 Cf. FBI (, accessed 01. December 2016.

2 Cf. Tromblay (2000), page 89f.

3 Cf. Federal Bureau of Investigation (2005).

4 Cf. Eggen, D & Witte, G (2006).

5 Cf. Goldstein (2005).

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.

8 Ibid.

9 Cf. U.S. Department of Justice Office of the Inspector General Audit Division (2005).

10 Cf. Goldstein (2005).

11 Cf. Ghori Sufiyan (2007).

12 Ibid.

13 Cf. Marchewska, J (2010).

14 Ibid.

15 Ibid.

16 Cf. Goldstein (2005).

Excerpt out of 23 pages


Systemic Effects of Information Systems. Analysis of FBI's Virtual Case File Failure
Grenoble Ecole de Management
18 (90%)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
827 KB
Aus der Reihe: stipendiaten-wissen
IS, Information System, FBI, Virtual Case File, VCF, FBI's VCF, IS Failure, Information System Failure
Quote paper
Jan Kachelmaier (Author), 2016, Systemic Effects of Information Systems. Analysis of FBI's Virtual Case File Failure, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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