Think about risk in a new way

Over the past several decades, government agencies have turned away from using in-house staff, relying on outside vendors to build their mission-critical technology. The decisions to do this were based on trade-offs that seemed like lower-risk options — often driven by limited capacity and promises of cheaper "off the shelf" tools offered by government contractors.

However, we’ve learned from examples like Healthcare.gov that while government can easily outsource the work of creating new technology systems, it cannot outsource the risk of failure.7 Projects that go wrong reflect back on their agencies, not contractors or software providers.

Government is ultimately accountable for its mission, so agencies need to have control of and responsibility for the projects that support that mission. The problem an IT budget request aims to solve is not a technical problem; it is a problem related to fulfilling the agency’s mission, and technology is simply a means to that end.

This doesn’t mean agencies need to do all the work in-house; however, it does mean agencies need to set clear expectations about human outcomes and technical standards related to data security, use, interoperability, monitoring, and evaluation.

Technical knowledge is cheap and abundant, but knowing how to run a state agency is a rare and valuable skill. Government must embrace and own its responsibility and risk of failure, recognizing that technology vendors are hired only to help and should be easily replaceable if they don’t deliver.

Checklist

  • The project has a dedicated, empowered product owner who is an employee of the mission agency — not a contractor, and not an employee of the state’s IT agency
  • Stakeholders recognize that the existing approach (waterfall development) fails the majority of the time, and that moving to agile development and modular procurement is, in fact, significantly less risky
  • Stakeholders regard outside vendors as interchangeable tools to accomplish a goal, rather than as the "owners" of a project or its outcome

Key questions

  • Are there identified and trained government employees (not contractors) that will serve as dedicated and empowered product owners to set direction, prioritize, and oversee the work of the development team?
  • Is there a chain of support for this new approach within the agency all the way up to the governor’s office, central IT, legal and procurement offices, as well as the legislature? Are any of those stakeholders able to block adoption of this new approach? If so, what is the path to escalating issues, ensuring alignment, and preventing those internal blockers from putting the project at risk?
  • How is the agency taking responsibility for leading the project and owning the results, rather than trying to outsource risk to a vendor through the contracting process?


Footnotes

7. For details, see the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services’ Office of the Inspector General report about the Healthcare.gov failure, "Case Study of CMS Management of the Federal Marketplace" and Harvard Business School case study, "The Spectacular Fall and Fix of HealthCare.gov." ↩︎