Court monitor sets sights on software system
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After heavily criticizing the federal government last month for making little progress on restoring faith to American Indian beneficiaries, the court monitor assigned to watch over the Department of Interior has set his sights on a $40 million software system that has encountered numerous delays and setbacks.

But while Interior officials acknowledge the outcome of the current investigation of the Trust Asset and Accounting Management System (TAAMS) won't be kind to the government, they are welcoming his oversight. The problems Joseph S. Kieffer may identify about TAAMS are well known, they said.

"There won't be any surprises," said a top-level official of the forthcoming report.

At the same time, Interior officials aren't conceding defeat despite recognizing the numerous failures associated with the three-year-old project. Bureau of Indian Affairs employees like the automated trust fund software, they say, and while the government has yet to prove that it works completely, fixing the problems isn't "rocket science."

Yet the government has little to cheer about over the system. Two years ago this summer, former Clinton administration officials eagerly proclaimed that "TAAMS works" as they began to, as then-project manager Dom Nessi said, "put this system through its paces."

But instead of seeing success after a two-month testing period, the government and outside contractor Artesia System Group found themselves confronted with BIA employees in Billings, Montana, who were unhappy with all the bells and whistles. Interior officials blamed the problem on lack of communication between the government and Artesia and, after about six months of extra work, the system appeared ready to receive new updates.

The assumption soon proved faulty as the government realized that implementing the system -- designed to track trust assets not just for an estimated 300,000 American Indians throughout the country but for tribes as well -- was a bigger task than expected. Originally pitched as off-the-shelf system, TAAMS has now turned into a full-blown customization project.

Neal McCaleb, the new Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, compared the course TAAMS has taken to home-building. "What we're ending up doing is completely reconstructing that program," he said. "In other words, we're buying the lumber and building the house ourselves."

"There's been some misstarts and misdirections," he acknowledged. But he said "the BIA is making progress."

Still, progress has been thrown off by as much as a year with the results of a recent test in Billings. When a TAAMS update was plugged into the existing system, it corrupted existing data, a serious problem which must now be corrected.

In addition to technical problems, which are currently being evaluated as Artesia works to correct the bugs, TAAMS has suffered from management woes. In just three years, the project has seen six managers.

To address these shortcomings, the Interior is paying EDS Corporation nearly $1 million to give BIA managers the "tools and resources" they need to do their jobs, said Interior officials. Some of the managers want the extra help, they pointed out.

TAAMS is still a pilot project at the BIA office in Billings. Interior officials said they do not want to to send it to other agencies until they are "100 percent" sure that it works.

Nessi, after having moved to another BIA job, has since left the agency. TAAMS current manager is Chester Mills.

Relevant Links:
EDS Corporation -
Office of the Special Trustee -
Trust Management Improvement Project -
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -

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Action threatened against Interior (6/25)
Memo: Trust reform project needs extra attention (4/11)
BIA official: Organization was in 'disarray' (4/5)
Interior: Trust reform is working (3/22)
'Emergency' trust fund meeting requested (3/21)
BIA Memo: Trust reform out of control (3/16)