In today’s New York Times, Michael D. Shear and Annie Lowrey wrote about an issue as critical to the American future as many fiscal and social policies: The government’s I.T. problem. Like many Americans, I watched in amazement as the Obama Administration rolled out its Affordable Care Act website and all hell broke loose.
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Once I finished the article by Shear and Lowrey, I knew two things. 1) ACA’s problems were not surprising at all.
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.
2) We needed this to wake up.
Wasted money in government programs may not be much surprise, but any 21st Century institution that can’t meet the technology demands of a wired, mobile and open society will raise eyebrows over and over again. Be it privacy, digital security, ACA-style functional disasters or untold future demands, the level of a government’s technological sophistication will be a primary determinant of our choices and their consequences. In fact, it will determine whether we even have choices.
Our representatives are supposed to be a key safeguard in these matters, but as the Times article mentions, “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 can be solved, but it would take the kind of counter-intuitive thinking that big institutions are so bad at. The president, according to his own statements and those of others, seems to want a fix but, “Mr. Connolly, the Virginia lawmaker, said he saw little evidence of a new push by the administration.”
That’s because, as Ben Wanamaker and Devin Bean of the Christensen Institute writes, “Very few companies or governments have solved the innovator’s dilemma.” One way that has proven helpful is classic Christensen: “Creating separate and autonomous units insulated from the core.”
Indeed, as the Times reports, “the government’s successes tended to come from small, focused projects, which might attract more competitive bids.”
With that, the Times article might have answered the question it was raising: Can government solve its I.T. problem? Yes, but only if it gets itself out of the way.
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