Our federal government often throws billions of dollars in the garbage on massive projects that are rife with mismanagement. The Washington Post finds that digitizing immigration records and application processes is just the latest example.

A decade ago, U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS), an arm of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), embarked on a project to replace paper filing and records with online applications via nearly 100 electronic forms. The project should have costs a half-billion dollars and been finished in 2013.

It is 2015, the project is now estimated to cost $3.1 billion and the timeline has been stretched to at least four years from now.

The implications of the project’s failures are critical to those it is meant to help. Immigration lawyers report lost applications, months-long delays, and errors that further hold up applications. Some immigrants have missed deadlines, which in turn means losing out on jobs, mortgages, and travel opportunities. And, remember, this is how we are treating legal immigrants!

Agency officials describe the project as one that set out on a track for failure from the start. By 2012, DHS was aware that the project was riddled with basic flaws and defects, but began rollout nonetheless. Only three of the hundred promised immigration forms have been digitized, two of them taken offline after they went live. Online payments for the more than 40 kinds of filing fees have also yet to be included with just one fee payable online –and even that has encountered major problems.

This project is earning well-deserved criticism as the Washington Post reports:

“You’re going on 11 years into this project, they only have one form, and we’re still a paper-based agency,’’ said Kenneth Palinkas, former president of the union that represents employees at the immigration agency. “It’s a huge albatross around our necks.’’

DHS officials acknowledge the setbacks but say the government is well on the way to automating the immigration service, which processes about 8 million applications a year. The department has scrapped the earlier technology and development method and is now adopting a new approach relying in part on cloud computing.

“In 2012, we made some hard decisions to turn the Transformation Program around using the latest industry best practices and approaches, instead of simply scratching it and starting over,’’ said Shin Inouye, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Services. “We took a fresh start — a fix that required an overhaul of the development process — from contracting to development methodology to technology.’’

Until then, immigrants and their lawyers say they will remain hugely frustrated by the government’s archaic, error-plagued system. Processing immigration applications now often involves shipping paper documents across the country, and delays are legend. A single missing or misplaced form can set back an approval by months.

“It’s shameful that they’ve been on this for a decade and haven’t been able to get a working system in place,’’ said Vic Goel, an immigration lawyer in Reston, Va., who has followed the computerization project as a liaison for the American Immigration Lawyers Association.

A report last year from the DHS inspector general’s office said it sometimes took up to 150 clicks for employees to navigate the system’s various complex features and open documents — and that the system lacked functions as basic as a usable search engine. Internal DHS evaluations have warned of “critical engineering uncertainties” and other difficulties.

The Government Accountability Office has blasted the immigration service for shoddy planning, saying the agency awarded the IBM contract “prior to having a full understanding of requirements and resources needed to execute the program.” As a result, basic planning documents were incomplete or unreliable, including cost estimates and schedules. The basic requirements for the project, the report said, were not completed until 2011 — nearly three years after the IBM contract was awarded.

Why did these agencies plough ahead despite the fundamental problems? The agencies involved were under pressure as President Obama was up for re-election and he needed to score points:

2012, the system’s fundamental flaws — including frequent computer crashes and bad software code — were apparent to officials involved with the project and, according to one of them, and it was clear that “it wasn’t going to work.”

But killing the project wasn’t really an option, according to officials involved at the time. President Obama was running for reelection and was intent on pushing an ambitious immigration reform program in his second term. A workable electronic system would be vital.

“There was incredible pressure over immigration reform,” a second former official said. “No one wanted to hear the system wasn’t going to work. It was like, ‘We got some points on the board, we can go back and fix it.’?”

So instead of scrapping a flawed product and looking for the best solution, a federal agency delivered a dud at taxpayer expense. This sounds like Healthcare.gov circa 2013.

Modernizing paper records is a worthy goal. However, disasters like this underscore that the inefficiency of the government, which relies on central organizing authority and lacks market forces.  In the end, innovation and competition spark new and better products that get cheaper at every turn and we the customers benefit.  

With central planning, government gets bigger as contractors and workers are hired, but the products delivered are hardly better – if anything is delivered at all – and we tax payers are on the hook.