There's A Reason So Many Government Tech Projects End In Failure

from the business-as-usual dept

There have been so many stories about government technology projects gone horribly awry, that it’s hardly a surprise to see yet another program beset by overspending and poor management. This time it’s the Department of Homeland Security’s plan to use biometrics at the borders that’s drawing the ire of the GAO. Not only is the plan going way over budget, but it’s not clear that fingerprinting foreign visitors does anything to stop terrorists. Fortunately, these kinds of failings aren’t unique to the US government. Chris Long, a tech reporter at the BBC, has an interesting essay that covers a number of high-profile snafus in the UK. He argues that these things stem from the fact that political higher-ups are pretty ignorant about technology. So, they readily propose soundbite-ready ideas like putting RFID chips in passports, taking fingerprints from every visitor or requiring that libraries install filters to protect children from porn. The people below them then have the unenviable task of trying to implement these impossible projects, leading to predictable failures and budget overruns. It’s not clear what the solution to this is, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect politicians to learn a little more about the technologies they talk about.

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Comments on “There's A Reason So Many Government Tech Projects End In Failure”

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Sanguine Dream says:

Problem is...

It’s not clear what the solution to this is, but it’s probably unrealistic to expect politicians to learn a little more about the technologies they talk about.

that’s about the only way to stop these things. Perhaps it these politicians found out (and cared about) just how much these soundbite-ready ideas cost they wouldn’t be in such a rush to say them. But what do you expect these days when the idea to help people has been reduced to literally nothing more than a campaign slogan.

jprlk says:

Science adviser

The best way for things like this to work, since gov’t. isn’t supposed to work well (it is way to big an employer for people to think it’s supposed to be efficient) is for there to be a non-partisan science adviser to the current gov’t. – someone who understands what some of the pitfalls of certain suggestions could be, someone who could figure out what new technologies are capable of (and not capable of) even if they’re not in that arena themselves.

someone says:

the real problem

As a person who works in government IT I can say that this is mostly true. The one thing you did miss is the changeover and how it causes problems. Every year or two we get a new set of guys in charge with their own agendas and lack of understanding.

It’s like getting a new CEO, CTO every year or so. It causes complete mayhem!!

Overcast says:

Well, when you try to accomplish something…

And use 20% REAL Science – eg: Physics, Mathematics, Biology, Chemistry, etc..


Factor in 80% POLITICAL science – eg: Bribes, Political Agendas, Self-Righteousness, Campaign Contributions, Kickbacks for Lobbiest Groups, etc..

You get shit like ‘Global Warming’ and other worthless garbage the government tries to pass off on us as ‘science’. (Yea, yea – it’s real isn’t it – go read Newsweek in 1975, when they were telling us how global COOLING was gonna kill us all).

Note: Whenever a LARGE amount of politics surrounds a ‘dire issue’, you can DAMN well bet there’s a lot of money and interests involved.

Look at Hurricane Katrina + New Orleans. They KNEW those levees couldn’t hold until anything over a category 3 hurricane and did what…?? NOTHING?

So >> Why in the name of God would you believe they ACTUALLY CARE????

It’s all about the money.

RFID is one small chip for a man – one GIANT leap for government kind controlling us.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: overcast

yea, the government is trying to convince us about global warming… when its the government that is doing the least to stop it. its the entire scientific community of the world thats talking about global warming.

now about the topic….
its all about the politician trying to offer new and innovative technologies to set themselves apart from the others. unfortunately, the only thing they’re educated in is manipulation and persuasion. all of their ideas usually come from the people who would get paid lots of money to try and implement it. politicians need to learn that they can’t offer ideas without understanding them. there should be some sort of committee that’s evenly split amongst republicans, democrats, and indies. it’d be difficult to do the independents since they’re so many, but the other two parties could hold something akin to primaries to get people on the committee. then they should just allow the scientific community to offer ideas and allow the committee to discuss and choose what projects they’d like. that way, the ideas come from the scientific community instead.

however, this would never actually work in the real world.

The infamous Joe says:

Re: Re:

Mr. Overcast,

Randomly putting entire words in caps and adding 3 or 4 question marks does little to prove your point, but it does help you seem 10 years old. Though, I do like to put all the randomly capitalized words in a row, as if it’s a hidden sentence. Like this: Real and then political cooling large, damn, knew nothing actually, care giant.

Fun for the whole family!

PS- You seemed to have dropped your foil hat, sir. RFID tags make government tracking no more feasable than, say, carrying a cellphone, or security cameras, or men in suits with radios in their ears and binoculars. I understand your need to cry foul, but the cry is a few decades late. Also, I might add, that being tracked != being controlled.

Gary says:

This problem will never be fixed.

I agree with Dorpus. “Truth is, people don’t want government to work too efficiently.” Good point… people only want the government to be efficient when we are getting our drivers license renewed or applying for welfare, etc.

Another good point is the constant change of administration… and THAT is what will always be a problem. Politician (B) always wants to out-do polititian (A). The result is that we have a lot of well funded “theories” on how to fix things with technology.

Enrico Suarve says:

Its not just the politicians

It’s also their minions (in the UK we call them civil servants)

I’ve had the misfortune to work on or closely with several government projects. My experience is that what the politician doesn’t screw up by offering the impossible or changing his mind every 5 minutes, his henchmen will screw up by creating pointless mini-empires, paperwork and employing their buddies as consultants

The level of waste and corruption from these people is sickening, but since the people doing the groundwork are usually contractors (read ‘scapegoats’) no one ever speaks out as to do so means never working on a government project again

A good book on the subject as regards the UK Militaries ability to squander is available from Amazon

Wizard Prang (user link) says:

It's not just Gov't...

…it is anywhere where the project is driven by political considerations.

…it is anywhere where those who do the planning don’t listen to those who do the building.

…it is anywhere where the designers do not have the authority to say “No, that won’t work”.

…it is anywhere where the project is born out of a need to be seen to “do something”.

Kevin Price (user link) says:

Government & Other Large Project Failures

Large (and small ones) Government and corporate IT projects fail for a number of reasons. Most are very predictable. It is not just government that suffers from this issue. Look at electronic medical records. How’s that coming. NOT! 73% of all software projects (public and private) are considered failures by the management that commissioned them.

I agree, with the article that the ignorance of management is a contributing factor to these failures, however not for the reasons stated. All of the projects referenced are solvable problems from an IT standpoint. As is e-voting and electronic medical records.

What is fundimentally flawed is the expectations at the outset of the project and the methodology that is subsequently applied to trying to execute the project. The procurement process is about politics and the lowest bidder. Neither of which have anything to do with selecting the provider most qualified to solve the problem. Government and corporations alike go out into the IT market with the same retarded expectations over and over and over. No matter how many times they fail. They continually hire the same big IT service providers like IBM, Accenture and Lockheed Martin. Why, because these are the guys that speed big bucks kiss the decision makers ass. By the way if you look at the project success histories for on-time and on-budget these three never, I mean never get it done, if it ever gets done at all. Yet they will be hired for the next one too.

The next problem with this process is that government and corporate IT managers are constantly being asked to select vendors and manage projects that they have no knowledge of. They are not qualified to determine who is qualified. Doomed to fail.

Everyone of these projects could be completed on-time and on budget if they were:

Studied in a methodical fashion
Design the system to meet the exact funtional requirements of the process. Don’t go buy something because its what the guy who wants to sell it to you says is going to work.
Hire qualified computer scientest to construct and implement the solution.

25% of these projects succeed! There is a reason for that! By the way, these successful projects magically happen for the same small set of organizations over and over and over. I wonder if they are doing something different than everyone else.

Chris G says:

Unrealistic? HA.

Unrealistic? No. Realistic? Yes.

It is realistic for us to expect anyone that uses a computer to practice common sense about their activities. It is realistic for us to expect politicians to have extensive first-hand knowledge about anything they wish to propose a law against/for.

Otherwise, you should not own a computer or you should get a real job. At McDonalds. Quit making laws when you have no idea what you’re doing.

How shit like this continues to go on, I don’t know.

“Lets blow up their computer when they pirate music!”…

It’s idiots like this that will one day cause the end of human life.

Cixelsid says:


As an optimist I still believe in the inevitability of the development of a Star Trek like society. Eventually the tech savy generation of the future will overrun the dinosaurs currently ruling our lives and someday our grandkids will learn about the great information revolution in history class. Also we’ll have sex with hot alien women.

dragonsking1968 says:

Re: Optimistic

I can’t speak to the hot alien women … haven’t seen any first hand yet … but I can say that I, too, hold out hope for the evolution of the hierarchy … I’m in Gov’t IT and user support is a big part of my day to day … I can say that there exists a “tech savvy” threshhold and when the majority of the decision makers fall onto the right side of that threshhold, we’ll probably see a greater project success rate … ’til then, keep up the Public Sector Mantra, which is “IT Solutions come in 3 colors: Fast, Cheap, and Good … pick 2!”

Neal says:

Open source advocates

I think this type of problem is ideal for open source advocates to tackle. We can’t expect politicians to understand the technical issues, we can’t expect big business and lobbyists to be honest with them, and we can’t afford to fund their lies and failures.

What we can do though, as technically literate citizens interested in the greater good, is attack the problems on our own. We discuss the problems en-mass already so why don’t we take the next step and document our analyses then begin to work on them.

Security and technology pundants and open source advocates should unite, identify flaws in ideas, concepts, and implementations and then contribute to a public, open, software solutions that address these issues. Lets analyse, spec, and even build the systems ourselves.

Of all things “we the people” dislike, this is one we’re most capable of improving ourselves, and all it requires is that we continue the discussions we’re having now and that we support the very ideas (open source, sharing and contributing) that so many of us espouse. All we need is to band together in a common arena which will simplify the discussion and process.

Google, you’ve got the capitol, the infrastructure, and the mantra and you could gain much in good will – fund an open think tank and code repository for these ideas.

Raptor85 (profile) says:

bad management

Anyone who’s worked IT for the U.S. Govt knows that the reason almost all projects crash and burn is because they didn’t make any sense in the first place. You get things being pushed down from halfway across the country that comes in a mandate that pretty much says “so and so does it this way, so we are mandating ALL our people do it this way” and they’ll do things like, say, make you “Upgrade” the help desk system that you just spent a hundred thousand dollars on to their version with half as many features and only works on NT4 under a blue moon on saturdays…..

of course this might just be ain airforce thing…

Tyshaun says:

Is non-government any different?

I have worked for both government and non-government entities and I don’t think it makes much of a difference. Is the delay caused in the production of a new video game console that different than the delay in implementing a new IT system for the FBI? Is the delay in delivering the Vista OS that different than the delays with almost any new defense department program?

My point is that peopole have (accurately) highlighted many issues with the public sector in project spending and management, but is it much better in the private sector?

Enrico Suarve says:

Re: Is non-government any different?

In my experience there is a difference – Private projects do go wrong and they always will

Simple fact is that some projects will go wrong as even if you properly do feasibility studies etc, the first time you do something there is always a learning curve. Sometimes part of the learning curve involves finding out that what seemed sensible and within bounds isn’t

The difference I have experienced is that private projects tend to go wrong less and are *usually* better thought out. My private clients tend to come with a list of problems and say thinks like ‘can you fix this?’ and ‘do you have any suggestions?’. The government projects I have worked on tend to come with a list of solutions they would like

If private projects start to go wrong the plug is usually pulled quicker as well

Like I say this is not grounded in any major research but it is my experience

pf says:

this is why we fail.

In my experience the reason government projects fail is the same reason that private industry projects fail.

People who decide what the final product will be and do, have no business deciding:

1. How it is to be done
2. How long it’s going to take

That’s up to the people who know how to do it and how long it will take.

So to summarize:

Executives, managers, etc. – decide what you want

Developers, techs – Decide how to do it, which will tell you how long and how much it will cost.

That invariably will lead executives and managers to say that there’s obviously something wrong with the estimate by the developers, either because it costs too much or it will take too long.

So then executives and managers will make up their own project time lines that are too short and presto!

Actually, usually, the last sentence above is done first, without input from anyone who actually does the work.

Again presto! Failure! And we ask why do they fail?

And we look around and there’s no sign of the executives and managers because they’ve been promoted! 🙂

Ain’t life grand!?

J.R. says:

Tech Requirements

Solution: Future political positions for U.S. President, Congressmen, Senator and Representative should have a job REQUIREMENT of some type of technological certification.

The education doesn’t have to be advanced but basic understanding of how a computer works on the inside and how networks work is essential in our ever-growing technological world. It makes absolutely ZERO sense to allow and/or entirely rely on insanely ignorant individuals to make future policy.

William says:

It's about jobs

This is about jobs. And my congressman bringing the most pork back to his state. The reason why so many of these projects fail is the same reason that they have been working on an overpass on I-20 for two years no one wants the grave train to end. Big government at it’s best waisting money by the truckload on projects that any competent business could do in a fraction of the time and cost.

incredulous howard says:

a different opinion

There’s A Reason So Many Government Tech Projects End In Failure

If government is notoriously bad at tech, one wonders how it is that most of the major advancements in science have come from research sponsored by governments. How in the world did we get to the moon? If government is so horrible at technology, how is it that all you little whiners are willing to put the security of your lives and homes in the hands of those government tech projects that result in the weapon systems used by the military?

You libertarians speak out of both sides of your mouth. If I were cynical, I’d think you are just in it for the greed.

someone afraid of the vindictive people in charge says:

Let's not forget accountability

Yes, another poor soul that works for a gov’t IT department and I’ve had to work on dozens of projects that were handed down with no analysis or cost justification. Remember that elected officials want to portray that they’re tough on crime, so as long as it sounds like a good idea to the voters it doesn’t seem to matter if it’s been proven to work or not. I think they get away with it again and again because the media doesn’t seem to do investigative reporting anymore. The media simply repeats what the gov’t tells them the story is! Poor Ben Franklin is rolling in his grave!

Austin says:


“If government is notoriously bad at tech, one wonders how it is that most of the major advancements in science have come from research sponsored by governments. How in the world did we get to the moon? If government is so horrible at technology, how is it that all you little whiners are willing to put the security of your lives and homes in the hands of those government tech projects that result in the weapon systems used by the military?”

Major advancements are mostly done by government? LOL The entire national science foundation gives out only a few billion of grants each year for all of their science budget, of which only a small % is tech. Even if all government grants for all research of all fields is put together you dont even come close to the amount spent on private tech industry research and development.
Regarding the moon? That took soo much money, that if invested domestically, such as in higher education, would have had exponentially greater effects long term. I mean come on, out of the billions NASA spends each year, what do we have to show for it in the area of research findings? Velcro?

Incredulous howard says:


Major advancements are mostly done by government?

Let’s tally the list of major tech advances funded by governments the 20th century:

1. Jet engines, in fact much of aviation advancement
2. Computers, and, in fact much of computer science
3. Nuclear power, in fact much of physics
4. The internet, remember ARPAnet?
5. Space travel and satellite communications

People who discount the contribution that the government has made to technological advances clearly haven’t been paying attention. Their heads are too firmly placed in the free market/libertarian ideology to be bothered by the facts. This is not to say that civilian business could not have produced these things on their own. But the fact is that they didn’t.

|333173|3|_||3 says:


JEt engines were originally invented by an RAF officer privately, but owing to his employment contract he had to give up the rights to HMG, who did development work on it and gave up rights to the USG as part of the repayments of debts from the War.
The first programmable computer designed was by Babbage, who did so privately. THe fisrt programmablke electronic computer to be designed (a base-10 monster) was designed by a German professor before the War, and spome programs were written for it, but the compter was not built. THe forst programmable computer built were the Bombes, which were designed by the GCCS and GPO, which were governemnt agencies, but they were developed by small in-house groups. Whilst it can be argued that they were designed to solve a very small set of problems, that was the case for most early computers, and they could be re-programmed to a certain extent, much like a PIC can. Most early computers were university projects.
Nuclaer power was first developed by university researchers, but the governements can have the credit for making that work eventually, over budget, and after a lot of arguing.
The internet was only partly developed from ARPAnet, since there was also the CERN system, from which came the Web, and many otehr computer networking experiments, and remember that the Internet did not spring fully formed out of raw firmament, but rather grew from experiments in connecting local computer networks together, and wa only partly governemnt funded.
Spacwe travel: yep, they get that one, although sttelites are just an extension oif terrestrial applications, only tha antenna ia in a different place. GPS is a sattleite version of a US rip-off of a British clone of a German system, which in the terrestrial form was used in the Biscay area (the original set-up) for many years after the War, when it was set up by the Germans inSpain, and used by the Allies, especially Bomber Command, as the most convieneint navigtion system.

What is generally meant by governemnt ineptitude in tech products is the smaller projects, with more specific aims, such as the FBI computer systems. What is needed with governemtn projects is for the original applicationm for tender to require a set date for completion and cost, and if the the project is not complete then the contractors get a massive fine of a cwertain percentage per day. If they take to long, they have to fork out money instead. ALso, the governemnt would not pay any extra oney, no maytter what. THis would force contractors to tender the correct date and cost. Naturally, this would lead to over-estimation of time and cost, but since they would have to compete and should not be allowed to offer a second bid once their bid is entered, and not be allowed to know what anyone else has tendered, they would have to keep this as low as possible. Naturally, this would requre a fixed set of requirements, detailing the specifiacations clearly and unambiguously.

What would also be good would be for the Civil Service to be truly independent and non-political, with promotions and appointments conducted internally, but with all advice to ministers to be documented. If the advice is incorect or misleading, then it is fair for the adviser to be dismissed, but if the minister recieves the advice but does not act on it then it is his fault. If he is advised that tehre is insufficient basis to make a decison, but provided witht eh facts, then he would be in the clear, unless what he did was clearly stupid.

"ill" duce says:

The cult of high tech

There is a lot of talk on the forum about educating the government etc, but isn’t the real problem in their philosophy of technology? Americans seem to think that every problem can be solved through greater use of technology of some sort of another. Granted, our government officials are poorly equipped for the task of decision-making based on technology, mainly due to the fact that most of them trained as attorneys, but the real problem is the beilief that anything new and or exciting that has a plug will solve our prblems. It’s window dressing for a culture that believes that providing a salve for symptoms cures the disease. No critical thought necessary, just throw money and microchips.

BTW, I’m not a Luddite, I just think that the fundamental way we address problems in this country needs to change. I’m all for the Star Trek society and hot alien chicks!

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