Government Website Development: Looking Forward and Saving Money

I got to thinking the other day..which is a scary concept at times..when I was informed that the E-Gov initiatives in government cost the great taxpayers of this nation millions of dollars a year. Wait, roll that one back: Yup, I said the words 1.) Millions and 2.) Years in that sentence. So, let me get this straight.. We pay millions in tax dollars for a bunch of contractors (..well..actually only a very limited subset of contractors..) to do what?…Build websites. That’s right people, websites. Something a high school student and/or an undergrad does for fun and/or could do as a class project, we pay people millions of dollars a YEAR for. (Before someone goes off the deep end, yes this is for development..not so much for hosting space..and that should make people even more upset.) This is only compounded in my head by the simple fact that websites and hosting is pennies on the dollar cheap in today’s could based world. The cost is almost purely in project management and development cost more so than steady state. Yet, operations and management costs seem to remain in the millions just to pay for nothing more than hosting and tech support and I’m sure there is a better way.

Alright, so what’s my point: In-sourcing and/or innovative alliance with the academic sector to provide transparency, civic entitlement to students, and a way to further public engagement..all while saving the government money.. PRICELESS. You know..didn’t Woz say something about this recently.. (yup…) It’s time as a government we start looking for the cost saving methods and this is a great place to start. I see this as a chance to engage more of the public, while also providing transparency.

..Think about it..

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Chris Poirier

It’s already done in cyber security, safety (OSHA), and homeland security via “academic centers of excellence” so why is it so hard to envision this for other things as well. I mean OSHA provides grants to schools/universities to develop safety programs that can then be downloaded for free and delivered to meet safety training requirements. Why would that be such a painful experience for web development, transparency, etc? After all a great deal of innovation in the tech, web development, etc environment is coming out of the early 20-somethings right now so why not tap that talent in order to save money and innovate the public sector? This would give student practical experience, allow them to grow, and provide a great service to their country/community/etc.
It just is beyond me that web dev, operations, and maintenance can cost millions of dollars a year when so many independents are running far more complicated websites for only hundreds of dollars a year. Sadly, I see this as nothing more than fraud, waste and abuse in government. (e.g., the “million dollar website” is today’s, $1,000 hammer of days since past.)

Chris Poirier

@Robert – First, thank you for taking the time to comment and hold an actual conversation on the discussion. (This more than a 140 character response that most would have attempted the same discussion, where actual words are required.) Now for the most interesting list about some of your comments:

1.) Keep banging your head, because yup, not only am I an “insider” as a current full-time career fed, I am also former IT consultant, and current part-time/moonlighting web-developer.

2.) I completely agree SOME governments are doing just this, but the Federal Government is FAR from such a concept.

3.) And..yeah..love it or hate it but web development in high school and college is pretty common place now, and/or kids are picking it up as a hobby via many available resources on the net that allow developing and marketing a website fairly simple.

4.) Truthfully, web devs are entry level positions in public and private entities now. So examples of for profit industries are actually a little weak:

a. Web Designer (Entry Level) National Average is $51,000. (Salary.com)

5.) Backend complexity has been overcome by Service as an Architecture options. With companies like rackspace and others doing this “in the could” removes the headaches, provides for security, redundancy, and massive cost savings over your typical Mil-Aerospace IT contractor.

6.) Complexity is becoming easier via the development tools in use. (e.g., Adobe Cs) and these are the tools being taught in web dev 101 environments.

a. Adapt or die! (I kid, but..really kids are coming out of school knowing these once “complicated design tools)

7.) “Special Requirements” are like anything else, requirements on a list. Lots of third party software now exists to do most of this as a service and does not require on-site/on-staff support to manage and/or implement.

8.) Truth is what was once hard, is becoming the norm and the available pool of skill sets is only growing. The failure of private and public markets is the failure to harness that power:

a. Look at all the start ups over the last few years:

i. LivingSocial (local to DC no less)

ii. Facebook

iii. Twitter

iv. ..on and on..why does this matter? Because well over 80% of start ups that make money in their first few years were done by those in college, just graduated or only 1 to 2 years out. All on simple web concepts and designs they hosted on their own.

9.) Sadly, you are right there ARE websites in the fed to look up program costs and I have bad news:

a. USASpending.gov

b. REI Systems Inc. is one of a few EGov contractors that does web dev for EGov via the GSA.

i. REI Systems Inc. (FY 2011 EGov Contractor = $8.2 Million)

ii. REI Systems Inc. (FY 2010 EGov Contractor = $9.6 Million)

c. That’s roughly $17.8 Million in only two FYs for full cycle web dev.

So, what’s my point? My point is I can throw data at you all day

Chris Poirier

So, what’s my point? My point is I can throw data at you all day long to make this point and this is the failure of the current market. This isn’t hard, it doesn’t have to be hard. It’s outside a lot of people’s comfort zone, no doubt, but this market is changing and fast.

..just some thoughts..

Chris Poirier

Ahh! Now we can get down to brass tacks on this item!

I don’t pretend to ignore the overarching issues in design, analysis, etc. However, I will stick to my guns on the issues that these things are growing at the younger phases of people’s careers as well. In fact, this is the point to my “start up” story: These companies grew into multi-million dollar companies without the presence of “experienced” program people. In fact, most may say the absence of them is what made them so successful. They weren’t stuck on doing things “the old way” with a huge program team of engineers, design people, etc. They remained lean, agile, and adaptable.

A bit to this point is the actualization that web development doesn’t need to be bare-bone development. In fact a lot of major websites, if you stripped away the curtain, really are nothing more than portal designs that are running content management behind them. (The day of sys engineer multiple pages and systems is almost dead..) In fact, WordPress is a LARGE percentage of major websites currently in use across the world (Check the stats here) and include MAJOR companies (Check that list out here) see if you recognize any of them. WordPress type implementations are super slim and a hack of a coder could run circles around full-up development in that world.

Also, to follow up: I did address the accessibility requirement issue. #7 addresses this quickly. There are actually 508 compliance software packages you can purchase to help identify and create accessibility solutions for your website. Very minimal specialized work required. (Great website of solutions for issue identification here.)

Finally, on questions anyway, not much is in the private space like rackspace right now. This is part of my point, it’s a “trust” issue, nothing more. All of those private rack providers are meeting FISMA and other security requirements, just the federal space seems unwilling to let go of their beloved Mil-Aerospace data centers, even if it is cheaper. Contracting is easy, you set the requirements and people come in to bid. They either meet the spec or they don’t. I do know that Amazon server space is slowly taking that from the “big consulting” families though. Apparently DoD has lead the fight in moving a lot of their stuff to the cloud and with Amazon no less.

My point here is that the game is changing. It’s changing fast. As an “insider” I actually am going back to school for web dev and software dev because in my current career field, if I don’t, I’m going to get run over by the “new guy” in less than five years. The new hires are showing up with this skill set and it’s on top of whatever I did when I went to school only six years ago. People need to remember this is not a “new” issue. How old was Bill Gates? Steve Jobs? Doesn’t seem so crazy now does it? These people exist and we should tap that energy. They might look young, they might even act young, but they know how to read, write, and code. That means they can do dev, read and write spec, and follow simple requirements documents. Sure, someone needs to hold a hand here or there, but we’re talking as if they will be untrustworthy until they hit at least 41 years old and at that pace the “new, new guy/gal” will be coming on board speaking SQL, HTML5, Flash, and who knows what’s next.

See, now THIS is a conversation 😉

Faye Newsham

WOOT you go @Robert. I don’t do any web development. None at all. I’m leading a website redesign that’s taken a year and will be deployed soon. I have 1 developer and 3 assistant types (basic html knowledge). Upshot is that the MAJOR pieces that you are not addressing is that I have to be an expert on a 2-inch, cross-referenced (by hand by me) binder of Federal regulations for websites which cover personal information rules, accessibility, plain language, paper reduction act, etc. I have to rebuild this binder at LEAST once a year. In addition, I have to put hands on EVERY page of a 6000+ page website to assess and evaluate what it needs – and so does the Federal person who “owns” it. The Federal person has a “real” job and can’t do it except for maybe the top 5% in importance (which I need to determine based on real statistics and analytics). NOW the customer not only wants to put lipstick on this pig, they also want the website to do things for them that is impossible (not impractical, actually impossible), and make their bosses look good. They also want the users to be happy and get what they need from the website. That means that they need to turn the pig into a swan… without any genetic manipulation. So I get my team together and we prepare a few designs based on: “the administrator wants more people in the pictures” and “something slick looking, you know modern.” OK, so we have a design selected (they dragged their feet for a few months but we managed to work on other issues while they were doing that). In the meantime, by the way, we’re still maintianing the existing site and content which takes a minimum of a full-time person just to answer and assist the Fed users updating the site daily. OK, we’re ready to “begin” the development effort. Development is the least of my worries!!! Please! Your ole to 508 is cute, by the way, that is the biggest part of my budget, not development, PDF remediation, explaining the regulations, applying the changes to content that already exists… 508 is a breeze if you do it right. This is the 3rd redisgn since 508 went into force in 2001 and believe you me, there is content on this website that is REQUIRED by Federal Regulation to exist that is older than I am… and we’re still working to get it into full compliance. By the way, that 6000+ page website? That’s just plain HTML output, not any of the documents, databases, images, CSS, or other content that goes into it. Your oversimplification is just not in any realm of reality. Oh, yah, and when you’re 2 weeks from deployment, a new tool is announced that will cause you to do this all again for a new CMS the agency’s parent wants everyone to use – with luck not required BEFORE the next redesing in say, 3-5 years from now.