Bioterrorism program lacks sound management

The Homeland Security Department's three-year-old program to coordinate surveillance information on bioterrorism is at risk of going over budget and falling behind schedule due to a lack of clear guidance and lack of data, according to a new report from the department's Inspector General Richard L. Skinner.

What's more, the National Biosurveillance Integration System, which was initiated in 2004, still does not have a plan in place to coordinate development of the necessary IT systems, the IG wrote.

Under current projections, the project's budget is likely to grow to $17 million, up from $14 million, the report said, and full functionality may not be available by the scheduled March 2008 completion date.

The program was created by the Science and Technology Directorate in 2004 to coordinate incoming surveillance information about threats related to public health, animal and plant health and air and water resources. The surveillance data is generated for numerous agencies around the clock by IT systems that process large amounts of data. The goal was to provide daily integration and analysis of the data.

Since then responsibility for the biosurveillance system has shifted within DHS four times, and the program has been challenged with staffing, planning and direction, the report said. The system was first moved to the Information Analysis and Infrastructure Protection Directorate, then the Preparedness Directorate, and currently is located within the office of the Chief Medical Officer. With each shift, priorities for the program have changed.

A contract for the system was competitively awarded in July 2006, but the contractor has not been identified by the inspector general nor by DHS. The previous contractor for the system, from 1999 to 2004, was Science Applications International Corp., according to Input Inc., a market research firm in Reston, Va. Input recently submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to obtain information about the current contract.

Currently, the biosurveillance program does not appear to be fulfilling its goals, Skinner concluded. As a result of the numerous transfers, shifts in direction, personnel changes and lack of input from users, IT development for the biosurveillance system is lagging and the system contractor is not likely to meet its capability and scheduling requirements, the IG wrote.

"As a result of the repeated transitions and staffing shortfalls, planning documents needed to guide IT development have yet to be finalized," Skinner wrote. "Additionally, program management did not provide the contractor with adequate guidance, requirements input or data sources to deliver a fully functional system. As such, the contractor may not fulfill NBIS capability and scheduling requirements, which potentially could result in cost increases to the program."

The lack of guidance on IT development has become so severe that DHS officials are losing touch with where the program is headed, according to one observer quoted in the report.

"Disconnected from the technical management aspects of the program due to the stovepipes, one official said that NBIS staff no longer have a good understanding of the direction in which the program is headed," Skinner wrote.

DHS officials agreed with the findings and said improvements have been made to the system to respond to the inspector general's recommendations, according to the report.

About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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