Civic Innovations

Technology, Government Innovation, and Open Data

Bad choices, good reasons

I had the opportunity to give a talk at work recently and I decided to focus on some of the reasons that governments sometimes make bad technology choices.

I used the example of project size, which is pretty universally recognized as a predictor of project success. Really big projects fail at a much higher rate than smaller projects do. And often the advice that is given to agencies to help improve the chance of successfully completion of a project is to keep it small. Look in any digital services playbook and without fail one of the plays will be a variation on the theme of “make the project smaller” or something similar.

Of government software projects that cost more than $6 million, only 13% succeed. But of those that cost less than $1 million, 57% succeed.

“Haze Report,” The Standish Group, 2015

So if this is true, and it’s pretty well documented, why is it still so common to see big technology projects in government? For the better part of a decade, digital service teams have been advising government agencies to make reduce the size and scope of their projects.

The point I wanted to make in my talk was that sometimes the thing that leads to a bad technology decision by a government is not that they don’t know the “right way.” Often there are other powerful forces pushing them in a different direction.

One reason that a government agency might choose to increase the size of their project, thereby decreasing the chance that it will be completed successfully and on time, is because funding is in jeopardy. I was reminded of this recently by this news story, which details the sentiment among state and local governments that American Rescue Plan Act funds could potentially be in jeopardy with the change in the political composition of Congress.

This can be a powerful incentive for governments planning technology projects to expand their scope and size, to draw down as much funding as possible before it (potentially) goes away. And from that perspective, this is a rational choice, even if our bias is to view this as a irrational choice because of the potential impact of the outcome of the project.

One of the mistakes I sometimes see digital services teams and others make is to assume that the reason that governments make poor technology decisions is because there is an information deficit. Governments make dumb technology choices because they don’t know any better.

While this is sometimes true, this view fails to account for the environmental factors impacting government technology decisions. Agencies often operate in an environment that favors larger projects. It rewards them with fewer trips through the (increasingly uncertain) budget process.

All this to say, sometimes government make poor technology decisions for good and entirely rational reasons. Understand this dynamic is important for those of us working to make government adoption of technology more successful.

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About Me

I am the former Chief Data Officer for the City of Philadelphia. I also served as Director of Government Relations at Code for America, and as Director of the State of Delaware’s Government Information Center. For about six years, I served in the General Services Administration’s Technology Transformation Services (TTS), and helped pioneer their work with state and local governments. I also led platform evangelism efforts for TTS’ cloud platform, which supports over 30 critical federal agency systems.

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