Why Do Government Projects Fail?

We’ve all been dismayed by the recent failures of Healthcare.gov. I wrote a recent blog about my frustration with government contractors who seem unable to take responsibility for their failures. But that leaves me with the question of why so many government projects fail. To be honest a lot projects fail in some way or another and big ones fail more. That goes for government as well as the commercial sector. But the government suffers from special hurdles. You could cite the lack of a profit motive, the lack of qualified IT personnel, or the complicated procurement system that might repel the best of the best in the IT field as the source of the problem. While each of these reasons is valid, I feel like there’s another problem deeply at the core of the way our government works.

To me the biggest problem has to do with emphasizing process over product. Because we have a divided system of government with many dispersed power centers, it is often difficult to agree on what a good outcome is. Even if the outcome is good, one side or the other still wants to beat it up for political gain. In a commercial environment if you have the support of leadership and can make it work in the end, all is forgiven. In the government, that isn’t necessarily true.

That leads people to push process. Let’s make sure our project meets the OMB regulations becomes more important than does it work for the customer. A project manager or a contractor can say, “Look, I followed all the steps I was supposed to, so it’s not my fault that it didn’t turn out OK.” This reality makes it really difficult to ship a minimal viable product and learn from experience.

There’s good reason for all the process. Transparency, privacy, security, fairness, etc., are all important goals for government. But, they don’t necessarily make it easy to create good customer experiences. The Administration has made some progress in signaling a way forward with its Digital Strategy but it is going to be difficult for government to keep up with the pace of change and customer expectations. What are some of the ways you think government can overcome the emphasis on process over good product?