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Wednesday, July 27, 2016

How Over-Customization Kills Government IT


"I'm not a doctor, but I play one on TV."- 1984 ad for Vicks cough syrup


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, in brief: 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 Frankly, many departments, functions, and jobs are outdated and even superfluous.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.

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All opinions my own. Photo by Mathias Buehler via Flickr (Creative Commons)