Postal Service mail tracking system doesn't deliver

Watchdog agency finds the project was finished 10 months late and failed to significantly streamline the types of bar codes used to trace deliveries.

The U.S. Postal Service's new bar code system for tracking mail has been delivered behind schedule, over cost and without key functionalities, according to a report from the Government Accountability Office.

USPS began the Intelligent Mail program in 2003 with the goal of developing one system that could interact with its more than 25 separate information technology systems and consolidate more than 30 types of bar codes. But according to a report (GAO-10-145) released on Monday, the system has experienced delays and missteps due to deficiencies in USPS' program management and acquisition offices.

The system was scheduled to be completed in January, but instead was delivered in two phases -- the first in May and the second on Nov. 29. The Postal Service did not respond to multiple requests for comment by the time this story was posted.

Despite the 10-month delay, the new system lacks a number of key functionalities, according to David Powner, director of information technology management issues at GAO. For example, Powner said Intelligent Mail was supposed to automate the acceptance process so senders would receive an acknowledgement when their mail had been delivered, but the system does not have this capability. It also does not significantly consolidate the types of bar codes used to trace mail, and it is not yet interoperable with other mail tracking and delivery systems.

"Looking at benefits in terms of reducing costs and improving service, no we're not there yet," said Powner, adding those functionalities would have to be built into future updates of Intelligent Mail. "We want to see how the existing 30 bar codes go away."

Powner highlighted inadequate oversight of contractors as a concern. The report noted at least two situations in which contractors were allowed to oversee themselves.

"There are ways to mitigate the risk, but that's clearly an unhealthy contractor arrangement," Powner said. "Over time the Postal Service saw the conflict there. We will be following up on that, it's something we clearly want to avoid."

GAO also said USPS' $116 million life cycle cost estimate for the project was inaccurate, because it did not include the cost of integrating Intelligent Mail with other IT systems, nor did it include the costs of any future updates, which Powner said will be necessary given the system's deficiencies. He declined to speculate on the true life cycle cost of the program, but said it would be significantly higher than $116 million.

The watchdog agency recommended USPS craft a comprehensive cost estimate and project plan, which would include details, features and deadlines for future releases of the system. But USPS disagreed that a comprehensive cost estimate is necessary, arguing that it is more important for it to remain dynamic on such a large procurement. Powner took issue with that approach, stating a cost estimate is crucial to planning and evaluating a large system acquisition.