Government // Enterprise Architecture
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6/16/2014
01:24 PM
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Government IT 'Fundamentally Flawed,' Researchers Say

Fixing how federal agencies purchase and manage IT will take top leadership and new approaches, say the authors of a new report.

5 Online Tools Uncle Sam Wants You To Use
5 Online Tools Uncle Sam Wants You To Use
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The federal government spends more than $80 billion annually on information technology, while state and local governments spend an additional $100 billion. Yet only about 6% of large federal IT programs succeed, according to David Wyld, professor of management at Southeastern Louisiana University and coauthor of a new report that examines what's wrong with government IT and how to fix it.

Throughout the report -- which is based on interviews with experts within and outside the government -- Wyld and coauthor Raj Sharma, CEO of Censeo Consulting Group, discuss how federal agencies purchase and manage IT, and why many programs fail. "This is not about IT procurement, but more about the way we solve big problems. Right now, the way we run IT programs is fundamentally flawed. We've erected enormous barriers to entry, limiting innovation and competition," Sharma told InformationWeek Government.

The authors argue that there are five main factors to blame for what's wrong with government IT:

  • IT programs often fail when there is no agreement on what problem needs to be solved or what success looks like.
  • Weak leadership and governance are to blame, especially since most senior leaders are not around long enough to see projects through from beginning to end.
  • The "risk-adverse mindset" agencies have toward compliance and fear of failure can cause programs to be delayed months or even years because of many reviews and approvals.

[For more on federal IT problems, see GAO Spotlights 190 Troubled IT Projects.]

  • Various requirements or excessive terms and conditions cause companies not to compete.
  • Agencies are notorious for using very cumbersome and cautious procurement processes that create closed markets and affect innovation.

When asked what agencies are doing wrong, Wyld said in an interview with InformationWeek Government, "The problem is that when you are talking about federal IT programs, you are dealing with projects that literally span a decade or more, cost billions -- even tens of billions of dollars -- and are consistently over budget, behind schedule, and not making things better. In fact, oftentimes agencies will find that they are worse off than when they started a big IT-focused project, and that's what's really disturbing about all of this."

While solving those problems will require patience, agencies don't have to wait years for major reform legislation, the report argues. "I do think that the situation can be turned around, but it will take top leadership actions and radically different approaches," Wyld said. "Few agencies have piloted different ways of doing things, such as breaking down huge projects into smaller, more targeted and manageable chunks and aligning everyone to project success. This is particularly true when it comes to getting procurement and IT to really work together."

The report makes several recommendations for fixing government IT. Examples include establishing clear lines of authority and accountability; using a "needs and outcomes" statement to set project goals instead of lengthy request for proposals (RFPs); engaging the market early; developing a return on investment-focused program strategy; and taking smart risks. Another recommendation is reducing requirements to allow for more meaningful competition.

The report also points out that it's not just an IT issue. Improving IT project success in government can go a long way toward restoring the public's faith in government, said Wyld. Less wasteful IT spending means those funds -- whether in the hands of the government or taxpayers -- can be put to better use.

New standards, new security, new architectures. The Cloud First stars are finally aligning for government IT. Read the Cloud Hits Inflection Point issue of InformationWeek Government Tech Digest today.

Elena Malykhina began her career at The Wall Street Journal, and her writing has appeared in various news media outlets, including Scientific American, Newsday, and the Associated Press. For several years, she was the online editor at Brandweek and later Adweek, where she ... View Full Bio

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Henrisha
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Henrisha,
User Rank: Strategist
6/18/2014 | 6:15:38 AM
Re: Smaller Projects
This is why it's important to work with external teams as well. It just helps balance everything out in the long run.
Henrisha
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Henrisha,
User Rank: Strategist
6/18/2014 | 5:22:54 AM
Re: "Succeed"?
I agree with those measures for determining the success of a program. To achieve the objectives of the program, well, that's the entire point of why someone would create it in the first place, right?
ElenaMalykhina
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ElenaMalykhina,
User Rank: Author
6/17/2014 | 4:30:38 PM
Re: "Succeed"?
According to the report's authors, success should be defined in terms of a program's ability to achieve defined outcomes and other key milestones that lead to those outcomes. That is ultimately the most important success measure.
Happily Retired
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Happily Retired,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/17/2014 | 1:48:47 PM
Re: Smaller Projects
Yes, leadership churn is up there as an issue even in local as well as federal levels.  Changes in elected "leaders" results in new dept and division appointees.   At our local level, my 35 yrs witnessed a parade of unqualified management.  When your IT manager refers to IT staff as equivalent to Librarians, checking IN and OUT books, well that speaks volumes.

Personnally, I also fault contractors.   Most IT projects of any size in government are essential run by private contractors.   Any sharp IT person could likely walk into any government "maintenance only" shop and immediately see, large new system implementations is beyond the skills of staff and management.  That is, ripe for the pickings.

No contract with a private IT contractor under those circumstances will every hold their feet to the fire.

My ex-employer, 5yrs ago started a replace Finanicals and HR...for $7mil.....its now over $25mil and still plowing along.  Most upper management were "replaced", contractors replaced, project staff changed, product mix changed,  timelines missed and written in pencil...always!!!

Happily Retired!!!!!!
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
6/17/2014 | 12:19:03 PM
Re: Smaller Projects
City IT and fedearal IT are quite different beasts, as our contributor Jonathan Feldman can explain better than I can. The leadership churn has been an issue in federal IT for several years.
jastroff
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jastroff,
User Rank: Ninja
6/17/2014 | 10:42:35 AM
Re: Smaller Projects
>> "This is not about IT procurement, but more about the way we solve big problems. Right now, the way we run IT programs is fundamentally flawed. We've erected enormous barriers to entry, limiting innovation and competition,"

 

It sounds like government planners don't know how to THINK about the projects. This is in part because they are on the inside (even contractors), but also because of the size. It would be interesting to ask a techno think tank to look at the problem differently.

They are challenging problems because of the size and the timespan, but perhaps a different approach migth work better.

 

 
Happily Retired
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Happily Retired,
User Rank: Apprentice
6/17/2014 | 10:32:53 AM
Re: Smaller Projects
The Authors should also site rates of "failure" for both public and private IT projects,  give us some context.   Secondly,   much of this advice is pretty well understood in IT however upper management and leadership are major issues in perhaps all levels of government.  

In my employer,   the CEO (Mayor) and Board of Directors (City Council) were community advisists, attorneys etc but lacked ANY experience running any large business.  As Mitt Romney would say "ClusLess".   For example, when your budget is 1% of total city operations,  you get the picture.

Vendors also took advantage of public entities.  Knowing they lack experienced leadership, they would under cut our staff opinions,   Then milk the system for years.   Good luck with those suggestions Authors!
Laurianne
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Laurianne,
User Rank: Author
6/16/2014 | 5:09:22 PM
"Succeed"?
I wonder how the report authors defined "succeed" -- on time, on budget, some quality measure? Perhaps we can add some context here.
RobPreston
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RobPreston,
User Rank: Author
6/16/2014 | 3:04:10 PM
Re: Smaller Projects
If, as the report states, only 6% of government IT projects succeed, the "fear of failure" cause that's cited is a bit ironic.
danielcawrey
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danielcawrey,
User Rank: Ninja
6/16/2014 | 2:31:06 PM
Smaller Projects
I think it would be smarter for government to break projects down into smaller, more manageable chunks. Why have projects go for decades and billions of dollars when technology changes so quickly?

It has to be understood, of course, that government must deal with hugely complex systems. And bureaucracy. So I can't imagine some of the technical challenges and hoops that must be worked through to accomplish things. 
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