What the FAA messaging system debacle said to all federal contractors | Federal News Network (2023)

Few people heard of the FAA’s NOTAM system until it crashed and brought aviation to a standstill earlier this month. The FAA blamed a contractor for accidentally deleting files, such that the system failed to synchronize. The Federal Drive with Tom Temin next guest says the incident speaks to all contractors about the need to supervise their people. Federal sales and marketing consultant Larry Allen joins me now.

Tom Temin
Somebody wasn’t watching the watcher or something broke down here in a procedure, Larry, the files were deleted. What’s your interpretation of what happened?

Larry Allen
Tom, I think probably while though we don’t know with precision, it’s easy to infer that you had probably a long time contractor support base supporting the [Federal Aviation Administration] (FAA)] on this particular system. Probably had some people who had been there for a while, but some new folks as well. The point being that there wasn’t a lot of oversight going on, either from the point of the FAA or even the senior management at the contracting firm. And when there’s not oversight, when people aren’t making sure that the system is tuned up and properly managed, then you get errors. In this case, it was a very front page error, the type of error that no contractor or government agency wants to have. And what I’m saying here is, when you have thousands and thousands of government contractor employees who work side by side with federal workers to achieve the same mission, I think there’s a tendency sometimes to think that, oh, we’re all in this together. And maybe on a day to day basis, Tom, we are. But when there are problems that arise, we are certainly not on the same page together. And that’s when it’s time for contractors to ensure, that they have done the steps and oversight they need to make sure that they’re on site people know, they’re part of two teams. The agency team and the contractor team. And what that means to ensure that they are doing the due diligence on behalf of their own company, and not just the client.

(Video) FAA system failure caused by 'damaged database file'

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Tom Temin
Interesting, yes. And different badge, same building. People think same building, same task, we’re all on this team. But really the two badges denote a relationship of oversight, perhaps, and supervision by the agency of the contractor. So it sounds like there’s a little bit of blame to go around everywhere.

Larry Allen
I think so Tom. And I think the thing that’s probably frustrating for not just the thousands of travelers whose travel was disrupted, because of the outage of the system. But frustrating for the FAA and the contractor, it’s pretty likely that each of them have processes, review processes that they’re supposed to go through periodically. And I think if they go back and check, they’ll probably find that somewhere those review processes either weren’t done, or if they weren’t done, they were done in a very surface scan type of methodology. We’re checking to make sure that all of the specific years were going in the right direction when they should be. If you’re bringing in new people, you’ve got to train them on what to delete and what not to delete. That seems like it’s should be pretty basic. And if you’re the government, and that’s critical data, you have to make sure that your contractor personnel know that, if you’ve got a process make sure you follow it. The processes and procedures may be a distraction or may seem like it’s distraction, sometimes from what people consider to be the day job. But if you don’t follow the processes, your day job turns into a crisis job. And that doesn’t work either.

(Video) Aviation expert issues warning on FAA system failure

Tom Temin
I guess the side issue here too, is that if you have people manually moving files around for synchronizing on a critical system. That system is probably 50 years out of date, with relation to modern day IT systems that support critical infrastructure.

Larry Allen
Well, right. And that requires specialized care and feeding by both the agency and its contractor partner. And we’ve seen, Tom, cases over and over again, where contractors are working with outdated government systems. You try to keep people on past their retirement date, because they’re the only ones who understand how these out of date systems work. On the flip side, you try to get Congress to update some of these systems. And that can be a years long process fraught with political overtones, just as much as the need for money. So, I think in this situation, you’ve got to particularly make sure if you know you’ve got an aging system or an aged system, that it’s going to need some care and maintenance and oversigh. Maybe over and above what a newer system would require.

Tom Temin
Sure. Now that employee is relegated to changing the rubber belts on the telex machines from now on.

(Video) FAA lifts ground stop after computer outage delays flights nationwide

Larry Allen
This is kind of my last point with this is that look, we’re all on the same team until we’re not. And contractors need to remember that they can be removed, that the contract can be cancelled, that contractors, Tom, are basically the low rung on the ladder. So you need to make sure that you’re doing it better than the people in the federal agency. Your margin for error is much less.

Tom Temin
We’re speaking with Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners. And something else changing on the scene is a congressional committee, now renamed the House Oversight and Accountability committee. And it’s not only renamed, but it’s organized somewhat differently now. What’s your expectation for what the contracting and federal IT community can expect from this whole new setup?

Larry Allen
Tom, I think you went in the exactly right place. The new name of this committee is something that should have all contractors standing up and paying attention, oversight and accountability. We’re not going to see every specific procurement program get called on the carpet before the committees and subcommittees in the house, Tom. But the opportunities for getting larger procurements and larger programs with congressional oversight, extra congressional oversight, I think are very high now. I think if you are the project manager, for a high profile, let’s say it acquisition. You can expect a lot more questions from congressional leaders, from congressional staff about what you’re doing, whether or not it’s on budget, whether or not the program is meeting the requirement it was set up to meet. You’re going get an extra set of eyes, a couple of extra sets of eyes, looking at what you’re doing and asking questions. You need to be prepared for that if you’re a contractor and a government agency, because it’s going to require some of your time, that maybe you’re not used to allocating your time that way now. But you also want to be really careful, Tom, about how you respond. I’ve written before about the need for government contract management people to coordinate, sometimes, with their government affairs teams. This would be one of those times. Government affairs teams are used to translating Congress speak to the rest of us. And if you find yourself getting a lot of questions from people in these committees, remember, it’s not just the technical answer, always, that’s the best. You want to make sure that you’re bringing all of the stakeholders in, so that they can run the necessary translation.

(Video) FAA contractors may have caused travel meltdown, Buttigieg orders review

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Tom Temin
And there are some short term, medium term, and long standing issues that just never seem to get resolved, no matter who’s in control of Congress or oversight. You’ve got [Department of Defense] (DoD) cloud activities, you’ve got the electronic health record at VA, you’ve got FAA modernization, you’ve got IRS modernization. These are just projects that drag on and on and on. They keep getting rebaselined, restarted, re-reviewed, and refunded. Not refunds, but new funds. And, so maybe, the committee will try to get some of those things off the dime.

Larry Allen
Well, I think that’s exactly what we can expect from this new committee. Tom. I think there’s going to be a lot of questions. Look, is this program not meeting its milestones? If not, the default now may be to say, well, that program should be stopped. And maybe we instituted another program. If the agency bit off more than it could chew, what can we do in a more modular basis? What can we do to get at the most critical needs, now, without trying to address maybe the whole strategy level issue? I definitely think we’ll see Congress, this committee making some recommendations to shut down programs they perceived to be ineffective, or Senate might have to go along with that. But Senate’s not real loose with spending taxpayer dollars on government programs, either. So, there still will be a level of oversight on that side of the hill. I think that’s very important. The other thing, I think it’s important, Tom, is to remember while we’re talking about oversight, this is a congressional committee. And congressional committees do other things, like pass legislation. I wouldn’t be too surprised to see that this new committee, in the House Oversight and Accountability, pass some procurement laws aimed at remedying what they perceive to be problems with the procurement process. You remember a few years ago, we ended up with Section 889b for telecommunications equipment. And that’s tied, both, government and industry, in knots in trying to comply with those requirements. They were written in a very conservative manner. I think we could end up with some more legislation in that vein.

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