November 3, 2013    /    by

Why do many big IT projects fail in government?

As the eyes of the entire nation are focused on whether Healthcare.gov will regroup and still be successful. Skeptical citizens are raising wider questions on big government IT projects once again.

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Photo credit is Associated Press/Evan Vucci

The National Health Service (NHS) in the United Kingdom recently abandoned its massive new computers system – at a cost of over £10bn so far (which is over $16 billion). What happened? Here’s an excerpt from The Guardian UK newspaper:


An abandoned NHS patient record system has so far cost the taxpayer nearly £10bn, with the final bill for what would have been the world's largest civilian computer system likely to be several hundreds of millions of pounds higher, according a highly critical report from parliament's public spending watchdog.

Members of Parliament (MPs) on the public accounts committee said final costs are expected to increase beyond the existing £9.8bn because new regional IT systems for the NHS, introduced to replace the National Programme for IT, are also being poorly managed and are riven with their own contractual wrangles.

And this massive failure is not alone on the list of failed government technology projects. Back at the end of 2009, Federal Computer Week listed many top government IT project failures. The author lists examples from the FBI, IRS, secure border control and others.
 
And now, the eyes of the entire nation are focused on whether Healthcare.gov will regroup and still be successful. Some skeptical citizens are raising wider questions on big government IT projects once again. 
 
Here’s an excerpt from a recent USA Today article on the Obamacare web site problems last week: 


    So the Obamacare website doesn't work, and nobody knows when it'll be fixed.  Administration officials are pointing toward late November, but they've had more than three years to work on it. In about the same amount of time after John F. Kennedy's "we choose to go to the moon" speech, we'd already put people into orbit and brought them safely to earth. It was obviously the signature effort of the Obama administration, but it was a flop. Forget launching to the moon; we can't even launch a website now. What does that tell us?

Well, don't blame Obama too much. It certainly tells us that the government has trouble executing the things it decides to do. But it wasn't always that way. Even for Obama.

 
Any Trends on Project Failure?
 
 Which begs some larger questions: Why does this keep happening around the globe, and what can we learn from these mistakes?
 
Information Week’s Jim Ditmore thinks the answer is a mix of poorly written code and:


-- Poor or ambiguous sponsorship

-- Confusing or changing requirements

-- Inadequate skills or resources

-- Poor design or inappropriate use of new technology

IT News in Australia offers twelve reasons from an auditor regarding government project failure. The reasons range from a lack of appreciation of the big picture to poor management buy-in to group think to poor communication.
 
Solutions Anyone?
 
 Which brings us to the question, is there any hope? If this has been going on for so long, why can’t we fix these serious issues? An article from Arstechnica.com suggests that government is stuck in a time warp with old technology. Also, governments need to start measuring different things.
 
Other solutions I found online include moving to more software-as-a-service and sharing more of the risk/rewards with the vendors.
 
But in closing, I suspect that lasting answers that work are more complicated and require a back to basics approach. We need the right people, the best processes and updated technology.
 
Governments need to do the little (and the big things) correctly. As this more comprehensive article from the UK suggests, we need to implement the tested project management steps, performed in order, over time, consistently. (Twenty-one tips seems too long, but is probably accurate.)
 
And with so many people watching, and with so much at stake, I suspect that we will see more losing (and many more winning) projects in government, long after the Obamacare website is fixed.