US government IT is like a third world country

A piece in the NY Times today got me thinking about the astonishingly baroque procurement regulations and bureaucratic layers that stifle IT innovation in the US Government, which has been made starkly clear by the Obamacare website disaster.

Michael Shear and Annie Lowry, In Tech Buying, U.S. Still Stuck in Last Century

Outside experts, members of Congress, technology executives and former government officials say the botched rollout of the Affordable Care Act’s website is the nearly inevitable result of a procurement process that stifles innovation and wastes taxpayer dollars. The Air Force last year scrapped a $1 billion supply management system. Officials abandoned a new F.B.I. system after spending $170 million on it. And a $438 million air traffic control systems update, a critical part of a $45 billion nationwide upgrade that is years behind schedule, is expected to go at least $270 million over budget.

Longstanding laws intended to prevent corruption and conflict of interest often saddle agencies with vendors selected by distant committees and contracts that stretch for years, even as technology changes rapidly. The rules frequently leave the government officials in charge of a project with little choice over their suppliers, little control over the project’s execution and almost no authority to terminate a contract that is failing.

“It may make sense if you are buying pencils or cleaning services,” said David Blumenthal, who during Mr. Obama’s first term led a federal office to promote the adoption of electronic health records. But it does not work “when you have these kinds of incredibly complex, data-driven, nationally important, performance-based procurements.”

The Standish Group, an information technology firm, deemed just 4.6 percent of large-scale government contracting projects executed in the past decade to be successful. More than half were “challenged,” and about 40 percent simply “failed.”

Even the discussion about ‘fixing’ the process is part of the last century, about relaxing contracting rules and centralizing control to a single tech executive in each government agency. There’s no real attention to adapting to the trends that are upending the private sector. This is the echo of the failure of CIOs in the business environment to align with the needs of the business, today (see IT leaders are out of sync with the enterprise’s new priorities, and Why CIOs will screw things up in 2014). Again, from the NYTimes:

The red tape also makes it difficult, if not impossible, for federal agencies to get the technology they need fast enough. “Agency leadership’s need for speed and agility has far outstripped the procurement and finance models,” Richard Spires, a former chief information officer of the Department of Homeland Security, told a congressional panel this year.

In addition, strict rules prevent the government from working closely with contractors once it has hired them. Dr. Blumenthal, the former Obama administration official, said the government system of managing technology projects was broken.

Clearly, the US government should sidestep these problems, perhaps by creating a modern version of MITRE or the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon, but without the former generals and life-long beltway bandit system analysts that seem to populate the federal software acquisition marketplace. And forget about modern work practices in the halls of government agencies, where some people are still moving data around on floppy disks. Since the adoption of new technologies in the world outside government is driven from the bottom up I despair about the US Government being able to catch up. I intend to do some research on this during 2014, but it looks ghastly.

Perhaps Obamacare will lead to some much needed revolution in government IT, but I won’t hold my breath.