The US Army's Far-Flung Attempt at Automation

The IRS isn't the only government agency having a tough time dealing with computerization.

Several years ago, the United States Army decided it needed to automate the administrative functions at its far-flung bases. So it decided to create a more-efficient standard system, the Sustaining Base Information System (SBIS), at an estimated cost of $1.8 billion.

After spending $210 million, the Army found itself "overwhelmed" by the challenges and canceled the effort. Congress appropriated an additional $59 million for fiscal 1997 to shut down the program and preserve its accomplishments.

"The biggest failing is that we thought [the task] was a whole lot smaller than it was," says Charles Jerzak of the Office of the Director for Information Systems.

The more-affordable alternative: Work with commercial software developers to adapt off-the-shelf software to do what the Army needs. "The marketplace is becoming much more responsive," to government's needs, Mr. Jerzak says. A significant issue, however, will be whether competitive-bidding requirements get in the way of decisionmaking and purchasing. In the meantime, Congress, asserting that the Army has no "master plan for automation," directed the Army secretary to submit one by May 1, 1997 and restricted the remaining SBIS funds to the programs already developed.

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