Here’s a surprising approach to problem solving

Government slimming machine

Government slimming machine, circa 2014

Faced with inefficient, bureaucratic tech skills, Obama proposes a new agency.

The Obama administration, stung by the failures of the HealthCare.gov rollout, may loosen hiring rules for technology specialists and create a new federal unit dedicated to big tech projects, officials said.

“We don’t have enough people inside of government to make good sound technology decisions,” said Clay Johnson, a former White House innovation fellow….

…  Agencies now must rely on the lengthy, often onerous federal hiring process run by the Office of Personnel Management. The process includes requirements such as evaluating multiple candidates for every position, lengthy questionnaires and giving preference to veterans.

HealthCare.gov is hardly the first government technology project to fall short of expectations. The Census Bureau spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop hand-held computers for its 2010 count, only to cancel the program when the devices failed to work as expected. The Federal Bureau of Investigation spent millions last decade on a computer system to track cases, an initiative that ultimately was scrapped.

But the health-insurance program’s high profile has moved the issue of federal technology procurement to the forefront and called into question Mr. Obama’s contention that government can leverage technology to improve services and cut costs.

Longtime observers cite two root causes for poor performance: rigid practices adopted by risk-averse officials and the government’s inability to attract top-notch technology talent.

“The government is lagging well behind the private sector in the competition for skills,” said Alan Chvotkin of the Professional Services Council, which represents government technology contractors.

Agencies have also been slow to adopt private-sector models. When building HealthCare.gov, officials say the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services used the traditional “monolithic” or “waterfall” contracting structure in which an agency writes out a set of requirements well in advance and contractors attempt to deliver the full system at once by a final deadline, which can be years out.

“There are dozens of rules, and lots of people who can say no in that process, and very few risk absorbers: someone willing to stand up and say, ‘Go forth and do well, I’ll take the risk,’ ” he said.

The federal technology workforce skews older: According to the Office of Personnel Management, there are eight times as many federal technology employees over age 50 as the number who are under age 30.

“I don’t believe the present class of [federal chief information officers] are in touch enough with modern technology to know what’s available to them,” said Mr. Johnson, the former White House innovation fellow. “This gap between the public sector and private sector has really affected their knowledge.”

We could outsource this for a fraction of the cost and get quality, rather than excuses, but we won’t,just as we refuse to privatize the air traffic control system. For-profit businesses are bad, government is good, no matter how badly it performs the job.

6 Comments

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6 responses to “Here’s a surprising approach to problem solving

  1. Cos Cobber

    The government should stick to policing, protecting, regulating and enforcing. Building and operating are best left to the nimble private sectors.

  2. Fred2

    That not have the guvmint do certain things at all.

    Then those things do not need IT and the problems go away.

    E.g. Obamacare

  3. Fred2

    Aside from which its true to form progressive thinking… “Wow! This doesnt work, let’s do it harder and faster!”

    Unlike someone more reality based… Who would do something different.

  4. weakleyhollow

    Privatizing may not be the answer either. Private contractors have learned how to leverage the federal contracting process to ensure that they are not held TOO accountable for results. Of course federal oversight of contracts is done by drones.