Watchdog report rips government wireless network effort

Like a bunch of children in a sandbox unable and perhaps unwilling to share their toys, multiple key government agencies cannot or will not cooperate to build a collaborative wireless network.

The Government Accountability Office report issued today took aim at the Departments of Justice, Homeland Security, and the Treasury which had intended what's known as The Integrated Wireless Network (IWN) to be a joint radio communications system to improve communication among law enforcement agencies.

However IWN, which as already cost millions of dollars, is no longer being pursued as a joint development project, the GAO said. By abandoning collaboration on a joint implementation, the departments risk duplication of effort and inefficient use of resources as they continue to invest significant resources in independent solutions. Further, these efforts will not ensure the interoperability needed to serve day-to-day law enforcement operations or a coordinated response to terrorist or other events, the GAO said.

The GAO concluded that the agencies "could not agree on a common outcome or purpose that overcame their differences in missions, cultures, and established ways of doing business; they did not establish an effective collaborative governance structure with a process for decision making and resolving disputes; and they have not developed a joint strategy for moving forward."

Such dire and costly consequence were foretold a year ago when the inspector general of the Department of Justice said that the ambitious, multi-billion dollar federal wireless network faces a "high risk" of failing to be achieved. After nearly six years of work, and spending by the DOJ alone of $195 million, there is little to show, the inspector stated. That report, like this one blames uncertain Congressional funding, conflicting spending priorities by a trio of cabinet-level departments, separate communications strategies by the same departments, and a decision-making structure that has stymied the network project. It concluded that the IWN faces significant challenges long before its completion date of 2021, challenges that its $5 billion price tag will not be able to overcome.

As one might expect, the agencies that the GAO rips, disagree with many of the points in the report. The DOJ for example said the GAO "not recognized that circumstances had changed since the inception of our review and that departmental leaders had agreed on a common approach that would address concerns the GAO raised." The DOJ also said that the current business environment is not conducive to a single mobile-radio offering, and that such an approach is no longer feasible or cost-effective.

DHS said too that the GAO was focused on mandating that the three agencies have one radio communications solution and that it implied that any other option would result in a stovepipe of non-interoperable communications systems.

The GAO countered that a single, common project or system is not necessarily the best idea, and it did not advocate as such. The GAO said successful collaboration on a joint solution-whether that solution is IWN or an alternative approach-is necessary to promote efficient use of resources, reduce duplicative efforts, and encourage interoperability. Although a joint solution could be based on a single, nationwide network, such as an extension of the original IWN design, it could also be, for example, a mutually agreed-upon strategy for developing separate but interoperable networks and systems.

The GAO went on to state that while department officials have signed an updated memorandum of understanding related to coordinating their radio communications projects, they have not made any progress on reestablishing a joint governance structure and decision-making procedures to address the challenges of collaborating on a joint communications solution.

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