Government hasn’t kept pace with advances in technology. Only 13% of major government software projects succeed, and the successful and failed ones alike cost 5–10 times more than they should. When these projects fail, so too do the public policy initiatives that depend on them — unemployment insurance, DMVs, healthcare exchanges, paid family & medical leave, etc. — leaving behind the millions of Americans who rely on those programs.
We’ve seen in the response to the COVID-19 crisis that even if lawmakers move quickly to pass legislation to get money to laid-off workers, small businesses, and hospitals, those policies can’t be implemented effectively when the technology tools used to apply for, distribute, and track funds can’t be easily modified or don’t work.
This is particularly evident at the state level. States all provide the same general services to the public, but they rarely hold the legal rights to the software underlying those services. The result is that when a state manages to build software that works well, they cannot easily share that software with other states. Some software sharing is done on an ad-hoc basis, but governance structures are difficult to set up, and are reinvented each time. The most common way that software is “shared” is when the vendor that built it then sells it to other agencies as “commercial, off-the-shelf” software that still requires extensive customization. The result is that states end up with several sub-optimal outcomes: 1) they don’t own the software needed to carry out their mission; 2) they’ve committed to a customized system that can’t be easily or automatically updated; and 3) they lose the ability to benefit from competition among vendors for better price and service terms.
States’ overly complex procurement processes result in insurmountable barriers for new software providers and insufficient competition. To date, the federal government, which funds a substantial portion of state technology modernization efforts, has been slow to intervene or create better incentives.
As part of the Beeck Center’s Digital Service Collaborative, a project in partnership with The Rockefeller Foundation, we will knit together a collection of state agencies based on common needs to help them collaboratively procure, develop, and maintain the software that they all depend on. This will prevent 50 states from buying 50 versions of near-identical, overpriced software, and instead allows them to procure high-quality, fair-priced software just once, and share it amongst themselves.
Due to states’ varying requirements, the resulting software is unlikely to be ready for immediate use in all involved states, but instead be something more like 80% complete, leaving room for the customization necessary to serve each state’s needs within each state’s technical environment.
Additionally, we will also aid states in taking back control of the systems they rely on to fulfill their mission through a combination of:
- Teaching legislative staff about how to budget and provide oversight for major software procurements
- Coaching agencies through using modern procurement practices
- Teaching states how to center all of that work in modern software development practices (Agile software development, user-centered design, product thinking, Agile contracting, etc.)
Most state budgeting and oversight officials are unaware that there is an alternative to their existing, too-often-failed practices, or that the standard mechanisms of budgeting and oversight effectively force these failed practices. Normalizing user-centered design and iterative software delivery will yield better experiences with government and better outcomes for millions of Americans. We hope these better outcomes will produce another important secondary benefit: restoring public trust in government’s ability to cost-effectively deliver services to those who depend on them.
There are several broader changes that we intend for our work to bring about.
First is an education and retraining opportunity for states. We want involved states to observe and participate in the Agile software development processes and associated user research, so they can learn what a healthy vendor relationship looks like. It’s our experience that once state officials participate in a proper Agile software development project with a modern software developer vendor, they are unwilling to go back to the old, failed model of procuring software.
Second is getting states in the habit of working together. By learning to collaborate through our work, we hope to normalize this type of collaboration. Once state agencies discover ways to work together effectively to create software tools for their collective benefit, they are more likely to look for more opportunities for collaboration.
Third is a push for a better way to deliver public policy outcomes for people by investing in a resilient digital infrastructure and user-centric technology tools. Technology must be an enabler of public policy initiatives, rather than an obstacle to them. Modernization efforts for long-standing programs and services too often stall out and public services suffer because of hard-to-use and complicated-to-replace technology systems, while broadly supported new policies and programs often fail to pass because of the feared cost of the underlying technology. By showing agencies how to create and maintain resilient digital infrastructure, we believe their technology can be a medium that facilitates change instead of limiting the scope of what’s possible.
Engaging more states to reform software procurement and delivery practices and participate in a state software cooperative will lead to better and faster service to the public and could reasonably save billions of dollars in a decade.