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 Frankly, many departments, functions, and jobs are outdated and even superfluous.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)

To Restore Trust In Government, Empower Federal Communicators

On October 8, 2013 the Pew Research Center for U.S. Politics & Policy released survey results showing that:
  • Most Americans (62%) had a positive view of federal workers (and a majority had a positive view of the federal agencies they were asked about)
  • Almost none (19%) trusted the government itself "to do what is right just about always or most of the time."




Over the years I have received many email chains ("Fwd: Fwd: Fwd:") portraying the government as corrupt or inefficient while hearing verbal anecdotes of federal employees who went the extra mile to help out.

Clearly, federal employees are dedicated. The 2015 Federal Employee Viewpoint Survey, administered by the government's Office of Personnel Management shows that more than 90% of respondents "view their work as important, are willing to commit extra effort when necessary to get their jobs done, (and) consistently seek out ways to do better."

Feds are also committed to integrity and precision; they don't give you spin. Only 43% of respondents to the survey agreed that "senior leaders generate high levels of motivation and commitment in the workforce," and 55% agreed that "my organization's senior leaders maintain high standards of honesty and integrity."

The father of classical public relations, Edward Bernays - who propagandized for the U.S. government in favor of entering World War I - once famously wrote that "propaganda is the executive arm of the invisible government." But today, ambiguity around the nature and purpose of government messaging has in my view created the current environment of distrust.

A better course of action would be to charge Federal employees with disseminating government information in such a way that fact is clearly distinguished from message.This is the model followed by the UK, and we should adopt it here.

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All opinions my own. Child grasping hand photo by Christian Scheja via Flickr(Creative Commons) Worker photo by "ginkgo" via OpenClipArt.org. Building photo by "derkommander0916" via OpenClipArt.org. U.S. Capitol image by "Gerald_G" viaOpenClipArt.org.

How They Squash You



In recent months I've had to de-friend a number of people on Facebook. I enjoy hearing diverse views but it has degenerated to this:
  • "Well I know where you get your news."
  • "The fact that you could even say that means you aren't worth debating."
  • "You need help."
  • "That comment is beneath you."
  • "You're an ignorant idiot schmuck."
How has civil discourse sunk to such low levels? A great article by Sean Blanda, "The 'Other Side' Is Not Dumb," explains it in terms of psychology, the "false-consensus bias." Essentially we are confounded when other people show signs that they don't think the same way we do.

On social media, being confronted by different viewpoints leads us to assume the worst. If you don't agree with me - well then you must be crazy!
"We and our friends are the sane ones and ...there’s a crazy “Other Side” that must be laughed at — an Other Side that just doesn’t 'get it,' and is clearly not as intelligent as 'us.'"
The problem with allowing the "false consensus bias" to proliferate, says Blanda, is that we lose out on the opportunity to actually learn something from those who vehemently disagree with our views.
"If we want to consider online discourse productive, we need to move past this."

As Blanda rightly points out, it is important that we preserve the civic town hall that is Facebook and other forms of online conversation. That is a social need. And it is important for each of us to practice listening, not just preaching, in these forums.

But there is another problem here that must be pointed out as well. When the virtual world becomes a place of forced consensus, those with dissenting views are essentially shut down from airing their unique and valuable points of view.

This can happen in a lot of ways. It can take the form of direct, rude comments as above. But it can also happen in other ways.
  • Shock: "You're supporting who? Really?"
  • Expressions of concern for you, when you begin sharing a lot of news about social ills that really make people uncomfortable: "Don't you think it's a little too much?" 
Sometimes people are actually supportive: "Thank you for sharing that," they might say. Or you see that they've shared your post with others. That is the good side of an online interchange.

I've been part of conversation that changed my own views about the world. Politically, religiously, culturally, psychologically. Whether it's others who have completely different views, or respectful disagreement where the flaws in one's argument are pointed to and countered. Those are the most fruitful conversations of all.

One thing I know. You will never get squashed sharing a personal anecdote or funny statistic; a photo of your family at a family barbecue; cat videos; peace mantras; or anything with Kim Kardashian and/or Taylor Swift. Those topics are safe.

But is that really all there is, safety?

For your sake, and our sake, the world that depends on your uniqueness, please do not be a sheep.

Whether other people like it or not, we all need to hear what you're thinking.

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All opinions my own. Photo credit: Craig Sunter via Flickr (Creative Commons)

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