We’ve all heard about federal technology project disasters. Many of these disasters are caused by ill-defined and constantly changing requirements, a lack of a solid understanding of who the customer is, a contracting culture that at times incentivizes performers to bill hours rather than create a solution, and lots of cases of mission creep. The response has been to insert new levels of accountability and new processes. In many cases, these steps have simply added additional costs without really solving the core issue.
However, there is hope. We are entering a new era where at least three trends will lower costs and improve the quality of the solutions for the government: Software solutions are unbundling; new platforms are lowering costs; and Application Programming Interfaces, Open Source Software and the communities that form around them are initiating an era of continuous improvement.
- Solution Unbundling. Traditionally, software and the infrastructure needed to support it were expensive. In response, buyers wanted to concentrate their costs to achieve maximum savings. That meant buying enterprisewide software that encompassed multiple functions. Unfortunately, the more features and functionality you pack into a product, the lower your chances are of maximizing each one. So you had to take some mediocre and bad to get the good. For custom products, this feature packing often caused the entire project to collapse under its own weight.
- Low-Cost Platforms. We’ve all heard about the cloud and know some of the key players, like Amazon Web Services, Google Cloud Platform and Microsoft Azure. These platforms allow small players to quickly scale solutions as users increase without building out their own infrastructure. These services are greatly reducing the costs of developing new solutions and allowing developers to pay for only what they need.
- APIs, OSS and Communities. APIs allow others to build on the solution you develop. APIs can create a community of developers around a platform who are continuously extending the reach of the core product. When you include open source software in the mix, you also have a community upgrading the core product as well, and the cost is low or zero.
When you combine these trends, you have a new ecosystem that allows organizations to focus on discrete needs and then experiment and iterate solutions at a low cost. You don’t need to buy the full service that you find out doesn’t really meet the need only after you’ve already bought and installed it. While this ecosystem is increasingly the norm in the private sector, the federal government still has barriers it must overcome: security, procurement and a general fear of failure, no matter how small or how much you learn from it.
Despite these issues, these trends are not going away. They are already taking hold in many agencies and can only grow. Creating a culture of experimentation based on these tools and trends is key to improving the way government functions and to revolutionizing government IT.