Politics, not technology, brings down government IT projects, experts say [Austin American-Statesman]
(Austin American-Statesman (TX) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Oct. 26--The political and bureaucratic factors that crippled the roll-out of the federal health care marketplace earlier this month are commonplace in government technology projects, but don't have to be, local experts say.
"There are a lot of projects like this that are designed by committee, and computers don't really like committees," said John Miri, a former executive with Texas' Department of Information Resources who is now a consultant with many public sector clients. "When physics comes up against politics, physics wins."
U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius acknowledged as much when she visited an East Austin health center Friday to promote the Affordable Care Act.
"In an ideal world there would have been a lot more testing, but we didn't have the luxury of that," Sebelius said at the CommUnityCare health center. "We had a law that said it's go time on Oct. 1 and, frankly, a political atmosphere where the majority party, at least in the House, was determined to stop this any way they could, including shutting down the United States government, so it was not an ideal atmosphere."
Shortly after HealthCare.gov opened Oct. 1, visitors ran into errors that prevented them from registering and purchasing health insurance through the online marketplace. Republicans have seized on the technical issues to attack "Obamacare" as fatally flawed.
The risk of failure could have been reduced by ramping up slowly rather than taking a "big bang" approach, Miri said.
"These types of things need to be broken down into smaller projects. They're biting off too much in one project, and then it becomes too unwieldy," Miri said.
The problems could have -- and should have -- been anticipated, said Leon Kappelman, a professor at the University of North Texas' College of Business who specializes in information technology management.
"These projects almost never fail because of technology. They fail because of people and process," Kappelman said.
In government projects, there tends to be a lack of strong management who will own the project from beginning to end and be held accountable if it fails, Kappelman said. That is particularly true given the mix of short-term political appointees and the longtime civil servants who will be there after the current administration leaves office, he added.
Often, there is also a disconnect between those making political demands about deadlines and about the parameters of the projects and those who are responsible for making it work.
"In most government IT (information technology) projects, there is no way to say no to a requirement," Miri said.
Private-sector information technology projects also have a high rate of failure, but that rate is continuously improving, Kappelman said. And companies sometimes have the benefit of failing outside of prying eyes.
Texas' government has had its own high-profile technological debacles, including the very public collapse of an $863 million contract with IBM Corp. to consolidate the data centers of 28 state agencies.
In 2005, the Legislature mandated the consolidation project to upgrade the state's antiquated technology, improve the security of state information and save money by operating two high-quality data center facilities rather than a bunch of smaller ones.
IBM was hired the next year to manage the enormous undertaking for $863 million over seven years.
By 2012, the project was woefully behind schedule, and the state parted ways with IBM. The project has been turned over to two other companies, Xerox Corp. and Capgemini. Details on the project's progress since that time weren't immediately available Friday.
The State Auditor's Office recently examined 13 major information technology projects and found that nine were completed late while one was canceled after five years and $7.6 million. On average, the projects took 40 percent longer than had been originally projected.
Many of the projects also came in way over budget because the initial cost projections were inaccurate, according to the auditor's report issued in March. Eight of the projects exceeded their budget by an average of 57 percent.
Contractors also have some incentive to submit unrealistically low bids to secure a job, only to drive up the final cost with change orders.
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