FBI turns troubled into triumph with Sentinel system

The long-awaited, problematic case management application met full operational capability in May. Jeff Johnson, the FBI's CTO, said about 30,000 employees...

The FBI entered rarified air July 1. The bureau successfully launched to 30,000 users its Sentinel case management system, making it one of the few agencies to complete a large-scale technology program.

But Sentinel didn’t come without its problems. It took the FBI nearly seven years to develop the system, missing its initial deadline by almost three years and having to take over the direct management of the program from its main integrator contractor, Lockheed Martin, in 2010.

“I believe this is a big win for the FBI,” said Jeff Johnson, the bureau’s chief technology officer, in an interview with Federal News Radio. “Sentinel makes the real transition from a paper-based case management system with all of the limitations of paper and the physical world and really leapfrogs the FBI into a modern, electronic case management system, allowing the information and valuable content of the FBI to be available anywhere in the world, effectively immediately.”

Three agents first dreamed up a modern, electronic case-management system in the mid-2000s to replace their paper-based system. The FBI awarded Lockheed Martin a $305 million contract in March 2006 as a major part of the estimated $425 million development effort. The program immediately ran into complications and the agency rebaselined the total cost, which rose to $451 million in 2007.

Sentinel replaces a “green” screen system that relied mainly on paper documents and took users — which include agents, analysts and support personnel — hours, if not days, to complete the workflow process.

This was the second attempt by the FBI to upgrade its case management system. It cancelled the Virtual Case File program in 2005 after spending $170 million.

And for some time, it looked like Sentinel would follow in VCF’s footsteps.

The Justice Department inspector general in 2010 found concerns over Sentinel’s “overall progress, schedule, increased costs, and inability to satisfy user requirements.”

Moving to an agile approach

In October 2010, the FBI put the program through a TechStat session and changed direction by implementing an agile software development approach. It also moved away from having one prime integrator, Lockheed Martin, and brought the operational management of the program in house. The agile approach is developing in three-to-six month increments and using stakeholder feedback to ensure the system meets their needs.

“With the agile approach, we were testing quite a bit as we were going along. We started off with a prototype that was envisioned by three FBI agents, who really came up with the vision of what Sentinel would be,” Johnson said. “Once we started the full agile effort in October 2010, we did demos every other Friday with a host of stakeholders. We have been doing ad hoc demos and ad hoc prototypes culminating in ever bigger pilots, ever bigger type of events in order to expose more people, get more feedback and continuously adjust course.”

The FBI brought in other contractors to handle different task orders under Sentinel, including BAE, Noblis, Keane and Booze Allen Hamilton, in addition to Lockheed.

Johnson said in the end Sentinel’s requirements have remained stable over the last seven years.

“The vision of what the FBI needed to have a flexible workflow capability, to have a flexible record keeping capability that is largely a static requirement,” he said. “We built Sentinel to provide that platform, to exceed that specification and be an adaptable platform for future capabilities as needs arise.”

He said Sentinel came in under the $451 million budget approved by Congress. Johnson wouldn’t say exactly how much the FBI spent on the program, however.

Testing full operational capabilities

For about a month, FBI users have been test-driving the full operational capability of Sentinel.

The case management system lets users customize their homepage, which features several elements, including navigation and several information repositories.

The agent or analyst does most of their work in the information repositories section where cases, leads, calendar, notifications and a host of other data is presented in a user-friendly way.

The agent, for instance, can manage their case information, including all associated documents, evidence and notes, electronically. The agent could bring up multiple cases at once and search the entire database for related cases by words, geographic region or many other terms.

All documents related to the case are electronic and official records. Johnson said the system uses EMC’s Documentum to manage the lifecycle of the documents.

Users can electronically sign all documents as part of the workflow process using their secure identity management card under Homeland Security Presidential Directive-12.

“We took all processing and paper out and made a workflow component,” Johnson said. “It may have taken five documents in triplicate to create a case, but now the workflow process does it electronically.”

The previous system offered some electronic versions of documents, but users would have to request anything official from the FBI’s paper document library.

“One thing that I made sure the team focused on during the development awareness is a phrase I coined, ‘time to awareness,'” Johnson said. “Having the information available electronically as soon as it’s approved and worldwide as soon as it’s approved, is critical to the mission of the FBI.”

Johnson said the electronic and certified record keeping system is key capability for Sentinel.

“That as a foundation enables a whole wealth of functionality from analytics to workflow to electronic approvals that can operate at an entirely different pace than paper,” he said.

Johnson said 80 percent of all pending cases have been moved to Sentinel, and the FBI shut down the front-end user interface of the legacy system, ACS.

Train-the-trainers approach

To ensure a smooth transition to Sentinel, Johnson said the bureau took a multi- pronged approach for training and education.

“We started with an agent orientation to gain some advocates and really start with ‘rumint’ which is rumor intelligence,” he said. “That would get us some advocates in the FBI who would start some positive rumors about Sentinel. We did that in March. We then briefed up all the special agents in charge of the various field divisions at the FBI.”

The FBI’s next step was a “train-the-trainer” exercise, where the bureau brought in 20 agents, analysts and support employees to be super trainers. Those 20 trained 300 hands-on trainers. Those 300 went to their home divisions to train their colleagues.

In June, the FBI provided training to more than 25,000 employees through the hands-on trainers, online training, Web guides, videos and interactive demonstrations.

The FBI’s IT shop also received more than 1,600 user comments about Sentinel, including how to improve it.

Johnson wouldn’t comment on what the future holds as it depends on the funding the bureau receives.

“The response we generally get is very positive. People see Sentinel as a useful tool. It has been a stable tool for the FBI for certainly the first month of full production,” he said. “It is also an overwhelming amount of capability and functionality. We continue to work with the organization to adapt and grow, and make our business processes better now that we have this tool in place.”


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