This is why we can’t have nice things (in government)

Last year I wrote about how enterprises could leverage tablet applications like Flipboard in order to change how senior leaders received and actioned their business intelligence.

After sitting on the idea for a year I established bureaucrati.ca as a foothold to try to help bring the app to market (note I’m pivoting on the role of the site, it will now be an outlet for creative writing).
Trying to get an app built meant hitting the streets and talking to a number of established mobile development companies and start ups, it also meant stumbling on what I think is one of the core reasons why we can’t have nice things in government.

As for the reason? Well it’s painfully simple.

Plainly put, companies that make beautiful things don’t consider enterprise solutions as a viable market. The CEOs I spoke with all cited four reasons why they have steered their businesses clear of enterprise solutions:

  1. they tend to require a bunch of integration work (work that is often different from organization to organization and rooted in its own technological evolution);
  2. integration work is difficult to scope in advance and thus hard to determine what would constitute an appropriate resource level (and thus the price of the contract);
  3. dealing with enterprises often entails hiring a sales guy to do the grunt work. The people I met with are skilled developers and shrewd business people, they don’t want to be out shilling their wares; they want to build applications and services that are so beautiful and useful that they sell themselves.
  4. No one wants to invest any effort into the procurement process. If you aren’t a big vendor you simply don’t have the resources, expertise or established relationships to successfully navigate the world of procurement.
While many of us on the inside already know that there are procurement challenges (ever try to procure a Mac?) I find the fact that the innovators in the private sector feel as though the procurement process itself is so broken that they can easily afford to purposely ignore the entire public sector. In the midst of the establishment of a new Shared Services Canada, I can only hope that those at the helm take a good hard look at the details around how we procure IT resources, because it may just be one of the reasons why we can’t have nice things in government.

Originally published by Nick Charney at cpsrenewal.ca


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David Hale

Those four points are spot on. I’d also add that companies that make truly beautiful things do so by focusing on user experience. The really great ones take it a step further and start with ethnography. When those companies meet agencies that have specifications or requirements based on mandates, regulations, or anything listed on a bulleted PowerPoint slide, they’re not even speaking the same language. Which is a shame, because citizens don’t want data, functionality, or websites. They want tools to solve their problems.

Candace Riddle

Boy you nailed it with integration. I’ve seen companies brave enough to create enterprise solutions to the procurement problem…and well…they’re implementing (or trying to) here in the US. However, even though the technology is being delivered…it is not being used. The people I’ve talked to cite not having enough time to do a complete integration (it is a matter of change management, reduced workforce, and well…lack of leadership). Most people are busy just trying to maintain the system that they have in place, let alone integration of a new (albeit better) solution.

Angelo Serra

I have to agree that you did nail the point on integration. Most of the “nice things” that you talk about are focused on the small – we don’t seem to want to take on small efforts, at least in government (it is all or nothing). I do know from working in some non-profits, they have nice things – I strongly believe that is due to the fact that most local non-profits will take anythings and leverage small things to their advantage (something is better than nothing).

Robert Bagwill

It’s a no-win situation. When small government groups are entrepreneurial and pro-active and ”It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to get permission”, you end up with the a mess of Palms and Blackberrys and iPhones and Androids and Windows Phones and random tablets running a random mix of OTS and home-grown applications. Security and standards are after-thoughts.

If you try to buy the same thing for everyone, you spend years wrangling over requirements, writing the RFP’s, handling protests, etc. and end up with five-year-old technology that wasn’t anyone’s first choice. Since the product has to be everything to everyone, and nobody can throw away their legacy applications, you have an integration mess. If you say “We’re all getting tablets and using cloud email.” it’s simple. If you say “We have to integrate with Exchange and Lotus Notes and Novell Groupwise, and we need an IBM 3270 emulator, it’s complicated.

Nicholas Charney

@David – agree on the issue of user experience, sadly it is something that barely ever gets mentioned when designing government programs (on or off line).

@Candace/Angelo – by far I got the most push back from start ups on the system integration, esp. since most are not developing for Microsoft .NET frameworks (how do you tie an iOS app back to your .NET architecture …).