Taking Responsibility for Failed Government Projects

The difficulties with Healthcare.gov have been a big topic of conversation here in Washington, D.C. The recent New York Times story on the contractors involved in building it and the hearings on Capitol Hill have raised some uncomfortable questions for me about our profession.

The main one is: Can’t we take responsibility for anything? When things go wrong, it seems like everyone goes into a well rehearsed round of damage control and the blame game. Here are the typical excuses:

  • The government did it. They kept changing their minds.
  • The other guy did it. His stuff was terrible and it broke my stuff.
  • We followed the contract to the letter. (Another version of the government did it.)

It’s pretty tiresome and frustrating and embarrassing as someone who makes a living as a contractor. This isn’t limited to Healthcare.gov (think Gulf Oil Spill and many others).

Instead, wouldn’t you like to hear:

  • We take responsibility.
  • All of the things up above could have happened but we were involved and need to take accountability.

I understand that lawyers and other advisors are most likely telling firms to deny responsibility to avoid lawsuits or other financial penalties. I also know that when a story blows up and attacks are coming from all sides, the truth can be in short supply. Journalists and the public can miss many of the distinctions and subtleties of what was in your contract, what your client asked for, and who did what. An angry Congressman or woman can seem like s/he just wants someone to beat up or score a political point on. Whoever is in front of them is just an opportunity and the accuracy of the charge is something for others to work out later.

I get all that. But it still would be nice to see some accountability and acceptance of responsibility. We have to ask ourselves whether we really did everything we could to make a project successful. Did we work as good teammates? Did we fully alert our clients to the risks of their decisions? Did we really do a good job?

Those might be difficult questions to answer, but owning up to our mistakes is a key value that I think every contracting firm ought to have. We can do better.

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