Technology and government

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Our discussion in our Freshman Seminar this last week concerned how technology in general and the Internet in particular could be used to help governments (at all levels) be more responsive and deliver services better. We were fortunate to have David Eaves join us; he has been an advocate for open data and using technology in government for some time, so getting advice from someone who has been there is really helpful.

What I keep thinking about, after the discussion, is the number of large technical projects within various parts of government that fail. There are the really visible failures like healthcare.gov (on its initial rollout) or the attempts to implement a case management system for the FBI or attempts to replace the air traffic control system (which has failed multiple times). Depending on the statistics you want to cite, 72% of government IT projects were in trouble in 2009, or that 70% of government IT projects fail, or that only 6.4% are successful. David claimed that things are not that different outside of the government, and you can certainly find studies that agree with this. In fact, reading these studies, it is surprising that anything ever works at all.

My problem with all these studies is that they fly in the face of my own experience. I spent about 30 years developing software in industry. I was on lots of projects. There were some that weren’t successful in the market for one reason or another. There were a couple that were stopped when the company I was working for got bought and the new owners decided that those projects weren’t the sorts of things they were interested in. But I was never on one that failed because we just couldn’t get the system to work.

David did distinguish between projects that were done in “technology” companies verses those done by everyone else, and I certainly worked in technology companies. But over the past 6 years I’ve been working in one part or another of Harvard Information Technology. Harvard is hardly a technology company (don’t get me started…), but in that time we have successfully rolled out a new course management system, a new student information system, re-vamped the Identity and Access Management system, moved most of email from local servers to the cloud, and done a ton of other projects as well. Not all of them have done exactly what everyone hoped they would do, but that have all pretty much worked. None had to be abandoned, or re-written from scratch, or got deployed and then turned into a disaster.

So what is the difference between the facts and figures that we see about project failure and my own experience? Maybe I have some sort of magic about me, so that projects I join or observe are somehow saved from the fate of all of these others. That would be really useful, but I don’t think it is the right explanation. I think I’m good, but I don’t think I’m magic.

I’m more inclined to think that the difference has to do with what the managers of the projects care about. In most of the government projects I’ve heard about, and in lots of the non-governmental projects that have failed, managers have been more concerned about how things get done than anything else. That is, the worry is what kind of process gets followed. Is the project being run using the waterfall model (which was first discussed in a paper saying that it was the wrong way to manage a software project) or various forms of agile development (which is a new cult), or some other method? These are approaches that managers really hope will make the development of software predictable, manageable, and most importantly, independent of the people who are on the project. All of these models try to make the developers interchangeable parts who just do their job in the same way. Doesn’t matter who is on the project, as long as the right process is followed.

This is in contrast to what I saw through my career, and what I see in companies that might be thought of as “tech” companies now. In these projects, the worry was all about who was on the project. There was a time I gave talks about what I called the Magnificent Seven approach to software projects. The process was straightforward: hire a small group of experienced professionals, let them deal with the problem as they saw fit, and if you found a kid who could catch fish barehanded ask him or her along. This was hardly an idea that I came up with by myself; you can see it in The Mythical Man Month and other things written by Fred Brooks.

A process-based approach seems a lot more egalitarian, and in some ways a lot more fair. It means that you never have to tell someone that they aren’t good enough to do the job. It is good for the company, because you don’t have to pay outrageous salaries to engineers who are probably a pain in the tail to manage because they think (often rightly) that the company need them more than they need the job (since, if they really are that good, they can find another job easily). So I certainly understand why managers, and large bureaucracies like various levels of government, want to focus on process rather than individual talent.

But then you have to explain the difference in success rates. If focusing on process gives a success rate somewhere between 40% and 5%, and focusing on talent does a lot better (I don’t have numbers, but my anecdotal experience would put the success rate of really high performance teams at the 85%+ range), then maybe making quality distinctions isn’t a bad idea. I’m not sure how you get the various levels of government to accept this, but I think if we are going to have governments that are dependent on good technology, we need to figure out a way.

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1 Comment »

  1. Curtis Wilcox

    November 11, 2016 @ 10:28 am

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    a new course management system, a new student information system, re-vamped the Identity and Access Management system, moved most of email from local servers to the cloud

    Weren’t all of these examples of buying migrating to a well-proven product, not developing something new? Certainly a lot of work was required, particularly for the SIS, to responsibly migrate data, encode business rules, and integrate with existing systems but when you choose “build” instead of “buy” you have to do all that and build the damn thing. “Buy what you can, build what you must” is generally a good idea and I’m sure government doesn’t opt for existing products and services as often as it can but I think government often has requirements and constraints that are unique, making what the market offers unsuitable; the VA probably can’t move to Salesforce.

    A process-based approach seems a lot more egalitarian, and in some ways a lot more fair. It means that you never have to tell someone that they aren’t good enough to do the job.

    It also means you can work with what you have, because you little control over who you manage. It means you don’t have to figure out how to attract and retain top talent, when you don’t have top money or even particularly interesting challenges to offer them. It means you don’t have to have management talented enough to recognize the top talent when hiring or on an existing team or to recognize someone would be much more productive in another position plus the influence to make such a change happen. There’s only so much talent to go around, you need to be able to get things done with “B” and “C” workers, focusing on process helps with that.

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