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Is government IT TOO big to succeed?

As the world has become dependent on information technology (IT), so has the federal government and its constituencies. Leveraged effectively, technical tools can engage the public, create cost savings, and improve outcomes. These benefits are obscured by regular reminders that federal IT is fundamentally flawed. It is too big to succeed,” said Zachary Bastian.

The Government is too big to succeed in federal IT? That’s the hypothesis from Zachary Bastian. Bastian is an Early Career Scholar with the Commons Lab at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He has just published a new paper:Too Big To Succeed: Need for Federal IT Reform.

He told Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER program that there are three basica areas where there are room for improvement.

Bastian’s Three Areas for Improvement:

  1. Embracing Agile Development. Modular Contracting. Open Source Software.
    1. Agile matters because it’s really an approach to software development that acknowledges a lot of the uncertainty that exists in technology. It is the anti-waterfall method. With agile there is regular communication with the programmer and the consumer. The consumer gives regular feedback along the way. The programmer builds and delivers feature by feature. There is a lot of ability to adjust and re-evaluate.
    2. Modular contracting is a natural compliment to agile because it’s looking at breaking contracts down into small discreet pieces. The massive size of the FAR can make it seem like these types of modular contracts aren’t possible. But sector 39 of the FAR allows these types of contracts. They are proven to work.
    3. Open source software is cheaper because although you have to pay someone to set it up and run it, you don’t have to pay for proprietary licensing fees. Fees that eat up costs.
  2. Encouraging Small Business Participation.
    1. Big contractors make sense for big projects. But they aren’t agile enough for smaller projects. When you are talking about smaller goals you don’t need a big contract. Smaller firms are going to be more equipped to deal with agile. You are not always shopping for a yacht but sometimes you need a canoe.
    2. FAR 13 is the Simplified Acquisition threshold. Basically that allows you to do a much more streamlined acquisition process for smaller more modular contracts. Think about the work the Presidential Management Fellows are doing with RFP-EZ. They are setting up a system of templates that procurement folks can use for these easy contracts.
  3. Shift the federal IT culture through education and experimentation
    1. When it comes to innovation it all comes down to good management. You have to gear your employees towards continuous learning and avoid the blame game. They need to know that if they fail they won’t loose their jobs. When you take a smaller bit it doesn’t have to work out perfectly the first time. It takes a sustained commitment from the top.

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Mark Forman

Wow…we seem to have lost our community ability to do root cause analysis and problem solving.

Here we have yet again an article highlighting what we’ve known for 20 years…Can somebody please share studies that delve deeper into why government executives won’t drive comprehensive change, building on Cobb’s Paradox, rather than just telling us that government IT should be more agile? I would rather know what is the root cause why leaders reject business transformation in process, staffing, and organization needed to leverage emerging technologies than have another study finding that government should fix IT management. I find little new insight for changing government performance and cost-effectiveness from studies that take a band-aid approach, when I think it is pretty clear that agencies with bad IT management have broader problems and the IT issues are just one symptom that indicate band-aid approaches won’t work. Do you think there is too much focus on the IT buying and development process issues that are really just symptoms of a bigger problem? Don’t agencies that fail in modernization have executives who overemphasize consensus-building, while are incapable of leading organization and business process change. Can someone provide case studies of measurable program OUTCOME gains in agencies that apply Agile or Modular acquisition while having leadership incapable of leading change? Do you feel the same way?

Allen Sheaprd

Is our government “too responsible” to succeed?

Too big? No. TheRed Cross seems to be pretty agile – so is the United Way, Girl Scouts and many religious organizations.

Too many rules? Hmm possibly. The first reaction to a new idea is “Which Federal reg covers this.” Not if but which – implying all actions – no matter how new or “unthougt-of” are constrained.

Look at the groups on social media from “FarmVill” to FaceBook. They are HUGE – and successful. The biggest issue are rules.

Here is where NGO – non government organizations thrive. Right after tropical “super” storm Sandy hit New Jersy groups are quickly responded. No mandate, few rules, agile, effective.

John L. Waid

Let’s all repeat this mantra: government is government. It always has been and always will be. Repeat enough times for it to sink in that analysis how government could do its job better ignores that basic principle. A employees we are either directly or indirectly responsible to politicans whose only concern is getting through the next election. Their concern is pleasing constituents, not effective administration, especially when that effective administration blocks them from giving a constituent what he wants. Transparency is great — for the other guy.

The principles which drove government in olden days (the word “byzantine” came to describe bureaucracy for a reason) still drive it. Deflect blame, garner credit, take care of your friends and relatives and especially constituents. That leads to imposing requirements that please supporters but hinder the mission. No wonder private organizations respond to crises far better than FEMA does. A post at FEMA however, rewards political supporters, which in the eyes of the politicans is more important than effective operations.

Although we can and should refine our processes to help the citizens with whom we intereact better, it is fantasy to expect that, at heart, the principles that drive people in government will change. For example, several years ago in California a truck exploded on an on-ramp to the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The fire was so hot that the ramp was damaged. The governor suspended a lot of the normal requirements (going out to bid, etc.) that would have held up construction even starting. The repairs were completed in thirty days, way less than it would have taken using normal channels. No one, however, wants to remove these restrictions to allow government to be more nimble. They please too many supporters.

Eric Melton

Honestly, Government IT is possibly too big for these ideas. Agile can be used for implementation, but experimentation and use of smaller contractors is hard to do on a large scale. Large scale IT better benefits from implementing standards and sharing across the larger enterprise, vice smaller “stovepipe” solutions.