On the stunning success of government IT

With a reputation as a pacesetter in health care, Oregon laid out bold plans for complying with the federal overhaul.

The state wouldn’t just create a health insurance exchange, a complicated undertaking in its own right. Oregon officials set out to build one of the biggest and best in the nation — a model that other states would want to copy.

But more than a month after Cover Oregon’s online enrollment was supposed to launch, reality is lagging far behind Gov. John Kitzhaber’s grand ideas. The online system still doesn’t work, and the exchange has yet to enroll a single person in health insurance.

11 comments on “On the stunning success of government IT

  1. Government IT is generally a bad idea. I don’t quite accept your assertion at the ASI that it is because you get crap people – contract rates can be high enough to attract more than competent programmers and project managers.

    However, Government IT is big, often poorly specified, rarely allowed to build up to high volume, with unreasonable and inflexible delivery timescales. It also then gets interfered with endlessly during the delivery process.

    Despite that, some of it, very occasionally works. Usually not very well.

  2. I run a company that builds web applications for the NHS so here’s my take…

    Where they go wrong is to try to build the systems themselves rather than specify interfaces.

    “Music is the space between the notes” – Debussy

    And that goes for software too. Good software is ALL about the interfaces.

    If they defined the interface for this thing… what goes in… what goes out… then when someone cocks up – as is normal – a spotty teenager arrives who built something amazing for 1% of the budget. They can just slot that system into place. Doesn’t matter if it works on Voodoo or homeopathy. Failure is the norm so build a system that can components out when they inevitably break.

  3. I don’t quite accept your assertion at the ASI that it is because you get crap people

    I agree. An abundance of money seems to be the problem sometimes. The requirement creep comes in because the budgets are bloated. Tight budgets make you build on something simple that works.

  4. “I don’t quite accept your assertion at the ASI that it is because you get crap people – contract rates can be high enough to attract more than competent programmers and project managers.”

    Actually, based on my personal experience, Tim’s assertion is true. The fact that contract rates are high doesn’t mean you actually make a decent rate of return. When you have a client that doesn’t know what it wants or needs, you end up burning lots of time trying to get that client up to speed. A further reality is simply that you never are dealing with first-rate people when you are working for a governmental client.

    People don’t end up doing IT at the Dept. of Health and Human Services because they are the “best and brightest”. They end up doing IT at Health and Human Services because companies like Google, IBM, Yahoo, Amazon, etc., etc., etc. won’t touch them with a ten foot pole.

    What people don’t seem to understand is this: The Post Office isn’t an outlier when it comes to governmental incompetence and inefficiency… it is precisely the norm. If nothing else, Obamacare has provided a “teachable moment” with regards to that fact.

  5. I found a good Government website this week.

    Having had reason to dig out my driving licence for the first time in well over a decade, I noticed I had forgotten to notify my most recent change of address. To my surprise, you can now do this online – no physical proof of address required. To my further surprise, as I have never had a photo ID licence, I was also able to give my consent to use my passport photo to create one – despite that being an entirely different arm of Government. Took 10 minutes all in, and documents arrived 2 days later. So it can be done.

    Admittedly, for all I know, it may have cost a gazillion groats and taken n years, so I don’t know whether the project was well run, but the end product is excellent.

  6. Alas, civil servants often tend to be a bit dim – which is why they work for the civil service and not JP Morgan. So very few have even the most basic grasp of IT systems and how they bolt together.

    DVLA’s IT is (was) operated by ICL/Fujitsu and project managed by IBM and is a relatively well-run operation . As a previous commentator said, it is all down to interfaces. Once a system has been launched and is running, it should be quite straightforward to add interfaces, expecially if they are offline batch jobs. With online interfaces it is essential that you keep it simple, save the back-end processing for later, rather than keep the punter staring at an hour-glass for hours on end.

    As with anything, it’s getting to launch that is the problem.

  7. I don’t quite accept your assertion at the ASI that it is because you get crap people – contract rates can be high enough to attract more than competent programmers and project managers.

    That depends. In my field of oil and gas engineering, you can find yourself playing eye-watering sums of money to a politically connected company (or one that has had the patience to stay in a ludicrous tendering process for the duration) who fail to attract the right people after contract award. This is usually due to 2 reasons: 1) despite being paid a colossal sum by the Client, the contractor still screws the workers and doesn’t pay them properly; 2) the contractor has a reputation for being a shitty employer, who nobody decent will work for.

    I’ve been on the receiving end of 1) in person. Client was paying X for the position, contractor offered me less than X thinking they were oh so clever in boosting their profits. Problem was, X was market rate and, as they practiced this across the board, they could not attract the quality of engineers the Client expected. Result: contract not renewed due to non-performance. Unsurprisingly, the managers still got promoted and hearty back-slaps. This in the private sector, too.

  8. for my two pennorth, it is rarely about the quality and skills of the people on the ground. Most of the problems are with the scope and deliverables of the project. Unless there is rigorous management of the programme, to ensure that the scope does not keep creeping and that the project does not keep changing to meet an ever-expanding list of requirements, then just about any project team can deliver. the difficulty is to be rigorous about controlling the scope. And it happens in both the public and private sectors – I have experience of both. The NHS programme did not fail because the interested suppliers were second-rate. If those parties had not been picked, who would have been selected? It was because the requirements had not been rigidly defined and enforced. As Kevin Monk says, it is about specifying what data needs to flow from system to system. This is an astonishingly difficult thing to define in advance but if you do not do it and enforce it, then the programme rapidly becomes unmanageable.

  9. I work in the Oracle market and the famous Oracle project that failed was rural farm payments.
    The word from people who worked on this was that the failure was partly because. They only renewed contracts at the very last moment so kept losing people who already had a new job lined up.

  10. From, albeit somewhat limited, personal experience, the government IT systems that appear to work quite well are those that are essentially online versions of paper forms… VAT returns, Income and Company tax returns, Annual Returns to Companies House, VED, etc etc…

    I’d venture to suggest that these succeed because they have an already-defined dataset and there’s no room for a bit of “blue sky thinking” from those who are (a) indulging in a bit of empire-building, and (b) hopelessly out of their depth.

  11. @InfoholicUK – I had a similarly pleasant experience with the DVLA this week. Needed to replace my licence, did it at the Post Office, where they took my photo in a booth, fired it down the line to the DVLA, and a new licence (both parts) arrived a couple of days later.

    You might ask why it’s necessary to replace our licences so often; I think you used to get one, and keep it virtually for life. But that’s by the by.

    I do think the DVLA’s the exception to the rule, and it’s a fairly simple job they’re trying to do.

    This is the key takeaway from that CBS story:

    “We stuck to the vision, and we’re experiencing now the bumps that go along with having a grand vision that doesn’t work out exactly the way you hope it will,” said Amy Fauver, chief communications officer for Cover Oregon.

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