State Of The Union - InformationWeek

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Software // Enterprise Applications
01:25 PM

State Of The Union

It seems as if government IT projects are doomed to fail. Some are--but Uncle Sam is learning, too.

It took five years, about $2 billion, and threats about firing its main contractors over delays and cost overruns before the Internal Revenue Service's modernized IT system started handling its first--and only a few--taxpayer files last tax season. The FBI burned $170 million on a system critical to managing and sharing files, only to bury the effort and start over.

Well-known fiascos like these leave taxpayers wondering: Is government IT doomed to fail? Do problems like lower salaries and inflexible budget cycles mean we'll see more of these blowups? It's a $65 billion question. That's how much the federal government will spend on IT this year, including 252 projects each with a price tag of $50 million or more.

Undoubtedly, federal agencies will continue to experience ugly, expensive technology missteps. Given the sheer number and scope of all the IT projects that are under way and planned, it's inevitable that some of them will fall behind schedule, run over budget, fail to meet objectives, or fall into some other bottomless, bureaucratic, tax-funded pit.

"We want to make sure we have the right talent to start a project from day one," says the IRS's Spires.

"We want to make sure we have the right talent to start a project from day one," says the IRS's Spires.

Photo by David Deal
The Transportation Security Administration last year abandoned its airline passenger-screening system, known as CAPPS II, after delays and privacy concerns surfaced. Now privacy and technical issues are dragging down its replacement, the Secure Flight project. More recently, congressional auditors criticized an electronic patient-information-sharing effort between the Department of Veterans Affairs and the Defense Department, saying it lacks a clear project-management plan.

Still, there are reasons to be hopeful that Uncle Sam has learned from the past and signs that some agencies have a better understanding of what it takes to successfully pull off a big IT project.

Government IT disasters always will be more public than those in the private sector, where failures tend to stay under wraps unless companies are mad enough to sue each other, or the failure hurts profits enough to require disclosure. Many people inside and outside government make a good case that public-sector projects don't fail more often, they're just more public. But the comparison hardly matters. No one accepts today's failures, and the reality is this: The federal government hasn't been good enough at key elements of IT management such as talent development, IT architecture, and contractor and project management. What matters is how it faces up to those shortcomings and takes steps to change them.


One lesson government hasn't learned, and the best-run businesses have, is to fail fast. The inertia of long government budget cycles can lead to good money chasing bad projects, whereas a business might put a halt to a failing program faster. "The private sector cuts off failures before they become failures," says American Red Cross CIO Steve Cooper, a former top business technologist at Eli Lilly and Corning, who was the first CIO at the Department of Homeland Security until joining the Red Cross this year.

Not only can the government budget process be inflexible, the long and detail-driven cycle requires IT strategists to base decisions on hard-to-predict technology trends. That was one of the factors that dogged the FBI's Virtual Case File system. That project involved custom-building a case-file system, but the capabilities of off-the-shelf software developed much faster than the agency expected and blew past the project specs, providing a more-viable alternative. "We're forecasting in the future for technology, and that makes it awfully difficult," says FBI CIO Zalmai Azmi, the fifth and final FBI tech chief to work on the Virtual Case File project (more on the revolving leadership problem later). "You never get it always right, but you do your best estimate when you do your budget forecast, especially with technology."

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