Government Is Paying for Failed IT Delivery by Ignoring Outcomes

Imagine leaving the lot of a car dealership to test a car. You drive a mile down the road and the engine shuts off. You turn to the sales rep sitting next to you in the passenger seat and ask her, “What happened?” Her response is: “The car can’t go more than a mile at a time.”


The sales rep shrugs her shoulders and says, “The assembly crew was asked to build a car to help people get around. They did that, but weren’t able to get it to work for more than short distances.”

But, the crew had checked all the outputs on the spec sheet. They had completed the project delivery.

This is an example of the problems that result in a project management mentality focused on outputs, versus a product management approach focused on outcomes.

The $100-billion marketplace is full of projects that check off every box on the spec sheet, fulfilling the outputs promised. But a majority of these projects are failing to meet the needs of the user and achieve outcomes. A report from The Standish Group found that just 21% of government IT projects are successful, yet the vast majority of contracts are paid and checked off as having been delivered. How can this be?

Government is still overwhelmingly contracting for a list of pre-determined requirements instead of contracting for a series of outcomes.

Outputs are important, but they shouldn’t be the driver. Outcomes should be driving the outputs to be delivered. The end result of the program should deliver mission value – this is the mission-delivery approach.

A program within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Service (CMS) is a good example of successfully pivoting to outcomes. There was a group that was historically managed as a “data warehouse,” primarily focused on secure data storage as an output-based program. The program led to its inevitable failure to deliver on the promise of sharing data horizontally across the organization.

About two months ago they pivoted to an outcome-based target of data adoption and interoperability of systems, even changing the name of the program to include “data connect” instead of “data warehouse.” The outcome is to connect data across the enterprise. While one of the outputs is still secure data storage, that is no longer the primary purpose of the program.

Here are three ways government can improve the value of program delivery:

  1. Elevate product thinking over project thinking. Lead your project using product thinking, which establishes outcomes and value as the driving force of project success. A product manager should have more influence over the project manager in order to properly elevate outcomes. Managing outputs can be coordinated by a project manager or even better, a scrum master-like role which is focused on team outputs and productivity using agile methodologies. A product manager can steer the program to ultimate mission value delivery, while the project manager/scrum master can keep the program optimized by driving to task-oriented output-based deliveries.
  2.  Measure outcome delivery using OKRs and/or KPIs. Objective and Key Results (OKRs) and Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) can be used together or separately for tracking progress on outcome-based programs. KPIs are the elements of your plan that express what you want to achieve and the deadlines to do so. OKRs are objective-based and can include KPIs as part of the roll-up to objectives. By measuring success via outcome-based indicators, the program will stay “on track” for mission delivery.
  3. Change contracts to be outcome-based. Contracts should not be managed by outputs alone. The terms of the contract should allow for flexibility and innovation. There is a process for modifying the pricing model based on project learnings. Contract deliverables should be measured by outcome-based KPIs. Fulfillment of the contract should be determined by progress towards the outcome – did it drive value and actually solve the problem that was intended?

It has been my experience that output-only-based programs in government are almost always “off track.” They lose sight of the problem or value they were intended to deliver. While most programs in government are still primarily managed to outputs, increasingly I am seeing more programs driving to outcomes using OKRs/KPIs as measurements and using flexible contracts that can adapt to necessary pivots to drive outcomes. Agencies such as the General Services Administration (GSA), CMS, Air Force and U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) have been doing this work for years – while many more agencies are moving in this direction.

Until government programs embrace product thinking and are managed to value outcomes over outputs, government projects will continue to fail. Increasingly, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and other government oversight groups will insist on outcome-based program management, and the government delivery community, both inside and outside government, should be prepared to respond. Many leaders and executives in government are tired of paying for successful delivery of outputs that drive to failed outcomes.

Greg Godbout, an entrepreneur and experienced solution architect, is the Chief Growth Officer (CGO) for Fearless, a full stack digital services firm based in Baltimore, Maryland. Fearless is a rapidly growing leader in digital transformation within government, working with federal agencies, including the Centers for Medical Services (CMS), Small Business Administration (SBA), National Security Agency (NSA) and the Air Force. Prior to joining Fearless, Greg served as the Chief Technology Officer (CTO) and U.S. Digital Services Lead at the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). He has also served as Executive Director and Co-Founder of 18F. He is a Federal 100 and FedScoop 50 award recipient. You can connect with Greg on LinkedIn.

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Photo credit: Erik Mclean on Unsplash

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