Government IT projects <em>are</em> different

Government IT projects <em>are</em> different

Summary: People are still talking about the recent news that the FBI's Virtual Case File system won't work after almost $170 million has been spent on it. A Wired News story has generalized the commentary to talk about government IT blunders.

TOPICS: Government

People are still talking about the recent news that the FBI's Virtual Case File system won't work after almost $170 million has been spent on it. A Wired News story has generalized the commentary to talk about government IT blunders. Your first thought might be that things aren't so rosy in the private sector either. There are three things, however, that make government IT projects even more susceptible to failure that the one in your company.

The first is scale. Even relatively small governments, like Utah where I was CIO for two years, have disproportionately large needs. For example, Utah processes over $1 billion dollars in welfare claims per year. The system that does that processing is currently being rebuilt. When it's done, the final price tag will probably be close to $100 million. I'm not a fan of big monolithic projects, but even split up into "manageable" pieces, the first phase of this project was $35 million.

The second issue is specialization. In the Wired article, Nancy Harvey says "Robert Mueller [can't] find an off-the-shelf product called 'Find Terrorist.'" While I sympathize with this, its not entirely hopeless. Most government projects can be built on top of commercial frameworks and use commercial tools. Too many government projects start lower on the food chain than they should.

The final issue is public exposure. Look at the beating that the FBI's gotten over the decision to cancel VCF. When I first became Utah's CIO, one of my staff counseled me that I could never cancel a project. The Legislature, the press, and the public would not understand. Even public companies can cancel all but the largest projects without anyone taking much notice. It takes guts to cancel a project anywhere, but in government its usually a career altering event. Consequently, projects get milked along until they just have to die and the result is more wasted money.

Topic: Government

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  • Two Separate Issues

    There are <em>two</em> separate issues here that are being lumped into one. The first is the dysfunctional relationship between IT and the large organizations they serve, the government in particular. The second is appropriately leveraging COTS (or GOTS, or open source) software. A third issue (which isn't present in this particular blog) is the (in)adequancy of IT talent.
  • Government Project (Money)

    The private sector has one underlying factor that controls project longevity and survivabilty: the bottom line. A private company will pull a project if it appears that the project will become pork-barrel. This is done for the sake of ultimatly saving money: if you are spending a lot of money for something that has a questionable ROI then management is more willing to scrap it if it become 'expensive.' Public organizations, on the otherhand, are usually funded by some other source, which means that they are not so willing to scrap a project becouse someone somewhere might start thinking "if they scrapped that project that they requested funding for, then they must not need that funding next time budgetting comes around." If you want to make yourself unpopular then anounce that you can "save money" in the public sector. Mr Windley gives passing mention to this ('milking the sysem") but does not really touch the depth at which this mindset works. Nobody wants to loose the money that has been appropriated so every project becomes somebodies pet that they will fight to maintain. Government (public) entities could benefit from encouraging comptetiveness in its workings, but this would be like finding fabled fountain of youth.
    • Let's tell like IT is

      This is a serious credibility challenge to IT Education, Industry, Profession & Societies.

      With all the claims of Software Engineering, Quality Assurance, CMM, ISO 9000:2000-Tick IT, academicians and professional bodies should be in a position to provide a methodology to assess risks and protect investments or admit that they have been hoodwinking trusting public and governments.

      I have some proposals and am keen on working with any group willing to tell like IT is.

      Putcha V. Narasimham
  • Choose Innovation

    Since Mr. Windley referred to my comment in an article posted on, I?d like to expand on an alternative view. It is unfortunate that the failure of large application development projects comes up for discussion at the expense of the FBI, when we all know, as Mr. Windley alludes to, that in corporate America major application development projects frequently run over time and over budget, seldom deliver what business really wants, and often times fail completely.

    It?s disheartening to hear ?shame on people for tackling such difficult applications? or ?prudent people would lower their expectations?. If even the best IT companies fail, shouldn?t we ask what really is the root cause of this crisis, and how do we solve it?

    I would argue that although it?s seldom discussed, we all know what?s wrong. It just isn?t possible to build 21st Century Applications ? the applications business and government really need today - by programming them the old fashioned way. We need a next generation application development technology at least an order of magnitude more powerful.

    We must change our mindset, believe that a quantum leap in SOFTWARE INNOVATION is possible, and seize the opportunity to embrace it. Instead of counseling that IT is not strategic or that business should be lowering its expectations, IT leadership should be pushing the horizon beyond programming, discovering 21st Century tools, building 21st Century applications, and enabling business and government to get a running start on this millennium.

    Breakthrough innovation in software is possible. I urge IT leaders to overcome their skepticism and look for 21st Century software technology that would enable them to deliver the real value of information technology at a fraction the cost, and with greater quality. Organizations faced with unprecedented challenges must now make the right decision and choose innovation.

    Nancy Harvey, CEO TenFold
    • Let's start such a group or join one

      Yes, that is the right approach and what is expected of science and engineering.

      If there is a group dedicated to this purpose (IT Methodology to improve precision of specification, estimation, execution within bounds and assurance of performance of IT Products & Services), please identify the same. If not let's start such a group.

      Putcha V. Narasimham