Iowa and the maladministration of technology
- By Michael Garland
- Feb 06, 2020
The technical fiasco of this week's Iowa caucuses brings to mind the Healthcare.gov debacle of 2013 and the potentially dire consequences of the maladministration of technology. This time it was the Democratic party’s failure, not the federal government’s, but here’s the thing: To this day, neither politicians nor the public at large have fully appreciated the inextricable linkage between technology and the proper functioning of our republic.
Getting technology right is not a luxury, it’s an absolute necessity. When you blow the technical execution of a democratic function, you throw the entire enterprise into question. Today, there isn’t a single government initiative that can be administered without properly executing the enabling IT. If you want citizens to believe in the government’s validity, the tech must work flawlessly. Anything less undermines its legitimacy -- just look at the hay the GOP is rightfully making right now, as Democrats still await final Iowa numbers.
No matter your politics, we should all be extremely concerned. Frankly, we are just one unforeseen blown IT implementation away from disaster. Think of Boeing’s massive market depreciation due to the 737 Max software malfunction (and of course, the lives lost). Could any administration survive a similar instantaneous collapse of support?
What if botched IT made the coronavirus pandemic worse, because failed technology caused the CDC to somehow lose visibility into the spread of the virus? I’m not suggesting this will happen, I’m only illustrating that IT powers every government function. Some of those functions are about life and death, while others are about the rights afforded us in the Constitution. When technology thwarts or impedes our rights, or causes deaths, there will be serious consequences.
Yet, despite the fact that taxpayers have spent over $1.6 trillion on IT since 1994, and the obvious primacy of IT to modern life, our government still treats it largely as a secondary issue.
This is not to denigrate the thousands of talented and committed IT practitioners in the government. The complaint is that IT itself continues to be a second-class item, devoid of any seriously empowered leadership.
One needs to look no further than the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act to grasp the weakness of IT’s relative posture in the government. Passed in 2015, FITARA mandates agency CIOs' participation in the development of their organizations' IT budgets. We are so used to the diminished importance of IT that simply requiring the CIO to be involved in that budgeting is seen as a gigantic advancement. Imagine you were a janitor and an act of Congress had to be passed to provide you a broom.
To this day, many CIOs are still not welcome partners in the business decisions of their agencies. Culturally, for some agencies, the CIO function is still the geek squad, only useful for answering help desk questions, counting PCs and now signing the budget, rather than collaborating and designing the sleek government of the future. Go back and read the testimony leading up to FITARA -- this was exactly the complaint that led to its passage.
The missing secret sauce for government IT is empowered leadership at the Cabinet level.
We cannot possibly expect the government to function in a modern way when IT is still a fragmented support function. To be successful IT must be weaved into the DNA of the mission. In 2020, modern successful organizations have tightly integrated IT into their business.
It’s not an afterthought; fast-moving companies that have captured their markets, like Amazon and Netflix have done so almost exclusively on the back of beautifully executed IT. They see it as the lifeblood of the organization, rather than a supporting function. They have flipped the script and use technology to drive the art of the possible, rather than to support the status quo. They don’t call the CIO only to approve a budget. They build their capacity and delivery in collaboration with the CIO. The business and the information technology are inseparable -- they are one and the same.
Our government needn't be as innovative as Walmart, but it does need to be more aspirational. The current priority, cybersecurity, is only table stakes. Cybersecurity, as a focus, is tantamount to an Olympic marathoner setting a goal of not falling down during the race. We must do better.
IT has to deliver, and it cannot be an afterthought. It’s time to rethink how we integrate technology into the government’s mission as a whole. It’s time for empowered leadership at the Cabinet level to own successful delivery of government services by weaving technology into the governmentwide DNA. And that flawless execution is essential if government hopes to avoid Iowa-style calamities that threaten the entire enterprise.
Michael Garland is the founder of Garland, LLC, a consulting firm that advises clients on issues related to federal procurement law and the business of IT.