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How Over-Customization Kills Government Technology

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Yesterday Scott Burns, the CEO and founder of GovDelivery (disclaimer: not an endorsement) published "The Elephant in the Room...Is Government the Worst Possible Customer?" on LinkedIn.

As someone who has worked for the government for more than a dozen years, and who frequently helps define requirements for government IT projects, I was interested to hear a vendor's idea of the things that are taboo to say.

His list of reasons why venture capitalists shy away from government as a customer include: 1) excessive customization requirements; 2) excessively cost-based decision-making; and 3) excessive paperwork.

Overall I agree with Burns' assessment, and hope that the next administration will take on the challenges he outlines. It will not be an easy undertaking, for the following reasons: 

  • Excessive customization requirements are a mask for self-interest. Frankly, many departments, functions, and jobs are outdated and even superfluous. Commitment to a true commercial-off-the-shelf IT solution, together with the adoption of private-sector best practices, makes that obvious.
  • Excessive cost-based decision making is a mask for self-interest. The government has a notoriously high IT project failure rate for many reasons, chief among which is the ignorance and risk-aversion of those writing contract requirements. If you know your stuff, you aren't afraid to specify what a quality solution is. If you don't, you can always defend your decision by saying it was the cheapest. In the end, such thinking is always just the opposite—a costly mistake.
  • Excessive paperwork is a mask for self-interest. Government contracting is currently a nightmarish field of endeavor. I have known some outstanding professionals who work in this area and all of them were unusually well-schooled in the law and also unusually thick-skinned when it came to dealing with the sharks inside and outside the agency who relentlessly pursued their own agenda and financial self-interest regardless of whether it benefited the agency's mission.

In my view, it is unnecessary to implore individual government professionals to solve these problems. Rather, we have to take a sledgehammer to the structural incentives that enable them to persist.

Regardless of who we work for, I think most people can agree on the very basic idea that government exists to serve the taxpayer. The taxpayers do not exist to prop up a bloated, inefficient and self-serving bureaucracy.

Copyright 2016 by Dannielle Blumenthal. All opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily represent the views of her employer or any other organization or entity.

Dannielle Blumenthal, Ph.D., is a federal communicator with 20 years' experience in the private sector, academia and government. Best known for her work on branding, Dr. Blumenthal now focuses on the discipline of management, particularly the intersections between identity, culture and communication. She has lectured at a variety of schools including The George Washington University and the University of Maryland University College. In her spare time she is an independent community activist, focused primarily on raising awareness about child sexual abuse and domestic violence. All opinions are her own.

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