Government for a Digital Age

by Dave Schuler on August 6, 2014

In the middle of a lot of partisan twaddle Michael Barone hints at the kernel of a good idea:

Government was reasonably good at replicating the bureaucratic processes of large corporations in the industrial age. But it’s not very good — it’s often downright incompetent — at replicating the IT processes of firms such as Walmart and Amazon.

I wish there were more there about why Amazon’s systems work better but there isn’t.

I can only speculate. Amazon wasn’t an enormous giant when it started. It started fairly small and its systems have evolved over time. They have been subjected to continuing, ongoing change.

The way that federal projects are funded and let precludes such a process.

I think there’s probably room for a lot more analysis of how modern system development could be managed in the context of 21st century government but, unfortunately, you won’t find that in Mr. Barone’s article.

Again, I can only speculate. I think a network model rather than the hierarchical model would be more effective. I think that bringing the development closer to the stakeholders rather than removing it to the confines of Washington, DC would also help. Agile development just won’t work in the severely top-down federal government and today’s environment in which every failure is trumpeted from the rooftops isn’t helpful, either.

I’m reminded of Churchill’s remark that success consists of going from failure to failure without loss of enthusiasm. That’s as good a definition of agile development strategies as any I’ve heard but I’m skeptical that our government could work that way.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

CStanley August 6, 2014 at 8:15 am

In hindsight, would it have made sense for the ’09 stimulus to have funded government IT “infrastructure” improvement?

Dave Schuler August 6, 2014 at 8:51 am

would it have made sense for the ’09 stimulus to have funded government IT “infrastructure” improvement?

Coarsely put, it would have been pissing money down a drain. The federal government doesn’t manage IT projects well and spending more on IT infrastructure wouldn’t have done much about it. The problem is institutional.

As Michael would undoubtedly hasten to add, big companies are typically little better than the federal government at managing IT projects and for the same reasons. They don’t manage well. It’s more like growing a crop or treating a patient than managing an assembly line.

CStanley August 6, 2014 at 9:36 am

That makes sense but I guess baked into my idea was the incorporation of the network approach that you are suggesting. It would have to be an attempt to overturn the institutional problems, not just pour money on the existing system.

I’m not saying there is any likelihood that this idea could be implemented well, just that it seems sound in theory to me.

TastyBits August 6, 2014 at 9:45 am

A lot of the procurement procedures are to minimize waste, fraud, and abuse. They may not work, but they make people feel good.

Amazon, Google, Chrome, and other always in development products can be frustrating. They do improve their products, but they also drop features at will, and there is no way to get them back.

In a corporate or government environment, this would be a support nightmare. I am a little more tech savvy than your average bear, but when Google suddenly stop working correctly, I had to track down the “+” syntax change. Your average bear would have called support.

Then, there is not one “government IT system.” There are a lot, and they all need to “talk” to one another. The protocols need to be fixed, or you will have a mess. With fixed protocols, you are creating workarounds and kludges because you cannot change the interface.

These IT problems are bureaucracy problems, and these apply to any large organizations.

The schools would need to produce a new type of worker for the agile development process to work in the corporate environment.

Andy August 6, 2014 at 11:09 am

“I’m not saying there is any likelihood that this idea could be implemented well, just that it seems sound in theory to me.”

The issue is that the government’s inability to utilize a “network approach” or competently manage IT is the result of structures that are incompatible with that approach. The government processes and procedures in place are simply incapable of operating like a Walmart or Amazon. And when I say processes and procedures I’m talking about stuff that is difficult to change because it’s the result of legislation. This is one of the reasons why I keep beating the drum about systemic federal government reform. We will never have competent government in almost every sphere without it. The government papered-over the problem with outsourcing and continued reliance on legacy systems, but those measures no longer work and come with their own set of big problems.

This is one of my biggest frustrations with our two political parties who turned the political about government into a more vs less argument instead of an argument about how to make government better.

TastyBits August 6, 2014 at 11:58 am


Large things operate different than small things. This is true for companies, animals, and ecosystems. The government is too large to operate as efficiently as a small company, and all of these companies are small compared to the government.

Civil service protections were put in place to protect workers from political pressure, but they also can be used to protect workers. Many of the procurement procedures are meant to limit waste, fraud, and abuse, but they can be gamed.

After 9/11, everybody thought stovepiped intelligence was horrible. Bradley Manning should have been a lesson that stovepipes are really firewalls, but I doubt anybody has noticed.

In large corporations, they have just as many problems, but nobody advertises them. When a multi-million dollar mistake is made, nobody takes responsibility. Nobody is going to step forward, and volunteer to get fired for a dumb decision. Instead, crappy software is used for years until the decision maker is promoted, gets fires, quits, or retires.

Anybody who thinks that big business is the most efficient entities on this planet does not have a clue how things work.

You sell your crap to the highest person you can find. He/she shoves it down onto the workers, and they complain about it. The decision maker cannot admit he/she made a mistake, and he/she continues to throw money at a crappy product trying to fix it. If you can make the initial sale, it is pure gravy after that.

My company has some integrity, and we have lost out to the competitor’s superior “product”. The customers are still waiting for that product to materialize, but when the purchaser is gone, we may have a shot.

Janis Gore August 6, 2014 at 12:37 pm

Ahem. I was notified that my brother’s obituary ran with an error today as to the time of the service Friday.

The piece was turned in early, in a format that was prepped to be picked up and inserted into the newspaper’s digital format program.

I do know that the current publisher of the organ is a conservative Christian. So, incompetence or malice?

Janis Gore August 6, 2014 at 12:40 pm

Having worked at the Natchez Democrat before, my first impulse is to call it incompetence. I’ll be looking for an explanation.

Janis Gore August 6, 2014 at 12:41 pm

Sorry to go off-topic there.

Janis Gore August 6, 2014 at 12:59 pm

My animal spirits are just fine. GRRRRRRRRR……..

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