Toward the end of an article last week that slapped around the Obama administration for the sickly HealthCare.gov website, The New York Times observed that “among technology experts, the federal government’s poor performance in developing Web sites was an open secret.” Clay Johnson, founder of a firm that built Obama’s campaign site back in 2008, and later a Presidential Innovation Fellow, says he declined to get involved with building HealthCare.gov: “It was a project I wanted to steer clear of.”
First of all: Thanks for your concern, patriot! You’ll work to get someone elected, but won't get involved in actually helping him govern? Nice.
But second: What’s with this assumption, oft-repeated of late, that the government “never gets tech right” — to borrow from the headline of an op-ed by none other than Johnson, along with former Barack Obama for America tech head Harper Reed?
It’s a bizarre accusation, given our government’s track record. As a counterpoint, maybe it’s worth pointing out the other rolling news story that’s giving the administration headaches these days: The ongoing revelations about the activities of the National Security Administration and the most technically sophisticated surveillance system the world has ever known. Sure, HealthCare.gov seems to be a mess. But let’s acknowledge that there’s a fair amount of tech know-how involved in monitoring Angela Merkel’s cell phone.
Moreover, this U.S. government that “never gets tech right” also deploys flying killer robots on the other side of the planet; helped orchestrate an unprecedented cyber attack on the nuclear facilities of a sovereign state, and has a history of “moonshot” projects that includes the foundations of the Internet and, well, many actual moonshots.
Yes, the government’s tech skill sometimes falls short. Johnson and Reed point to one analysis asserting that about 94% of “large federal information technology projects” launched in the last ten years were “unsuccessful.” (It appears that actually about 41% failed, while 52% were over budget or fell short of expectations.) That sounds disastrous, and gives ammo to the technologists and Silicon Valley types who love to declare the government “completely useless.” Their suggested fix, of course, is to put them in charge: “Tech geniuses, we need your big brains now more than ever,” pleads this Slate piece (though if those tech geniuses are only willing to work long enough to get their candidate elected, we might have some difficulty.)
There are surely plenty of “big brains” in the tech business, and their productive input would certainly be more welcome than their pompous sneers. But let’s also recall that the vast majority of venture-backed startups also fail – same with tech startups generally. Even past dazzlers can stumble badly: Anybody want to hand the keys to HealthCare.gov to the minds behind MySpace or Pets.com? Ambitious technology-driven projects, civic and commercial, inevitably entail significant risks.
Johnson and Reed’s ideas for reforming the government tech-firm contracting process seem perfectly reasonable. And, per my own past comments on the matter here last week, I’m certainly not defending HealthCare.gov. But perpetuating the cliché that “the government never gets tech right” is both silly and a distraction. Clearly the government can master, and indeed invent, technology to achieve priority goals.
What’s outrageous about the HealthCare.gov fiasco, in fact, is not that it was somehow inevitable – but that it so clearly wasn’t.