News media here in the US are abuzz about the scandalous mismanagement of the Arlington National Cemetery where an US Army investigation discovered that at least 211 graves may have been improperly marked or lack the necessary paperwork. Arlington is viewed in the US as "Our Nation's Most Sacred Shrine", so you that don't live in the US can imagine the outcry this has created.
According to the American Forces Press Service report, Army Secretary John M. McHugh said that the investigation:
"... found Arlington’s mission hampered by dysfunctional management, by a lack of established policies and procedures and an overall unhealthy organizational environment.The report also determined the improper interment and transinterment of remains, to include the loss of accountability of remains, remains in graves listed as empty, unmarked gravesites, improperly marked graves and improper handling of cremated remains. "
The AFPS report also says, "The Army stripped Superintendent John Metzler of all authority, but he will remain on staff until his retirement July 2. His deputy, Thurman Higgenbotham, was placed on administrative leave pending additional personnel actions. Both are career federal civil servants."
Secretary McHugh also apologized to the nation for the unseemly mess.
The above issues cited by Secretary McHugh have been reported for a couple of years in length by Salon, where you can read numerous stories about the embarrassing operational and management problems at Arlington. The Salon stories eventually sparked the Army to investigate the situation.
Part of the problem at Arlington stem from the fact that the status of more than 300,000 graves at Arlington, some which date back to the US Civil War, are tracked manually on three different paper index cards. The cemetery has been trying since at least 2003 to computerize the burial records. According to this September 2009 Salon report, $5.6 million has been spent through 2009 without getting anything in return.
However, this 2005 story in The Roanoke Times says the project to computerize the burial records was originally set to cost $10 million to $15 million. The reason for the apparent cost discrepancy is that the company hired in 2004 to perform the work and which had successfully completed a pilot project was replaced by another contractor in what Salon implies was overt favoritism by cemetery deputy superintendent Thurman Higgenbotham. This contractor - and a host of other contractors - have not been able to develop a workable burial tracking system that is readily available at other US government and privately run cemeteries.
For instance, another Salon article says that,
"Electronic systems to record grave information and track grave locations via satellite are relatively common. The Spring Grove Cemetery in Cincinnati, for example, is a similar age and size to Arlington and has used computer systems and satellites to track graves for years. That cemetery did not return calls for comment on the cost of implementing that system. The Department of Veterans Affairs, which maintains more than 2.9 million grave sites at 130 national cemeteries in 39 states, tracks information on graves through its electronic Burial Operating Support System. In fact, family can track the locations of many veterans' graves right off the VA Web site using the 'Nationwide Gravesite Locator.' "
The Army investigation details the absolutely horrid state of IT at Arlington. The report says that on a scale of one to five (five being best), its IT posture is rated as a one by a cemetery senior leadership.
In addition, the report says that Arlington management "has proposed an IT plan that will bring it into the 21st century."
The Army report goes on to say, however, that
"... the launch of the plan has been delayed by a lack of expertise, allegations of improper handling of personally identifiable information (PII) and improper contracting procedures."
So, apparently all that the $5.6 million spent so far over the past seven years has created is a "plan for the 21st century."
Maybe the Army CIO Jeffrey Sorenson and the US government CIO Vivek Kundra can move together to quickly to get a workable grave information and tracking system in place at Arlington, especially since, as the Army report states, there are multiple commercial systems available as well as ones that the VA and National Park Service use.
Given that these identical problems at Arlington were identified back in 1992, it is a national disgrace not to fix them once and for all.
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.