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Why Do Government Projects Fail?

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Image via jorgen mcleman/Shutterstock.com

We’ve all been dismayed by the failures of Healthcare.gov. I wrote a recent blog about my frustration with government contractors who seem unable to take responsibility for their failures. But that leaves me with the question of why so many government projects fail.

To be honest, most projects fail in some way--and big ones fail more. That goes for government as well as the commercial sector. But the government suffers from unique hurdles. You could cite the lack of a profit motive, the lack of qualified IT personnel or the complicated procurement system that might repel the best of the best in the IT field as the root of government's problem. While each of these hypotheses is valid, I feel there’s another problem--one deep at the core of the way our government works.

To me the biggest problem has to do with emphasizing process over product. Because we have a divided system of government with many dispersed power centers, it is often difficult to agree on what a "good" outcome is. Even if the outcome is deemed good, one side or the other still wants to beat it up for political gain. In a commercial environment, if you have the support of leadership and can make it work in the end, all is forgiven. In the government, that isn’t true.

That leads people to push process. Making sure a project meets OMB regulations becomes more important than whether or not the thing works. A project manager or a contractor can say, “Look, I followed all the steps I was supposed to, so it’s not my fault that it didn’t turn out.” This reality makes it really difficult to ship a minimal viable product and learn from experience.

There’s good reason for all the process. Transparency, privacy, security, fairness, etc., are all important goals for government. But, they don’t necessarily make it easy to create good customer experiences. The White House has made some progress in signaling a way forward with its Digital Strategy but it is going to be difficult for government to keep up with the pace of change and customer expectations.

How do you think government can overcome the emphasis on process over product? Share your thoughts below on why government projects--at least in some form--so often fail. 

Image via jorgen mcleman/Shutterstock.com

Alan Pentz is a partner and co-founder of Corner Alliance, a Washington-based consulting firm that focuses on helping government clients build strategies to stay relevant in and capitalize on today's shifting technological landscape. He is a former Capitol Hill staffer and holds an MBA from the University of Texas at Austin. Contact him at apentz@corneralliance.com, or follow him on Twitter at @apentz

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