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Why government IT projects are so prone to failure or overruns

September 30, 2013 2 Comments


Joseph Marks over at Government Executive Magazine has an excellent article on the propensity of government IT projects to having significant cost/schedule overruns or to fail altogether. One of the key issues is the frequent lack of authority, power, and accountability precisely because of all the rules, regulations, and procedures in place for acquiring IT goods and services:

The problem is that having all these cooks in the kitchen sometimes leads to crossed wires, inefficiency and obfuscation rather than smart IT investments. And it’s often tough to get a handle on who is to blame.

This inefficiency has serious consequences. The U.S. government is the world’s largest single buyer of information technology, spending about $80 billion on IT products and services each year. Auditors have estimated better management and oversight of these purchases could save the government $10 billion over five years. That’s $3 billion more than the entire annual funding for the National Science Foundation in 2012.

Just as important, better management could streamline the acquisition process so agencies are less likely to buy technology that’s outdated or doesn’t do what it’s supposed to.

Rep. Gerry Connolly, D-Va., grilled VanRoekel about this when he testified before a House panel on government operations in July. Connolly, who represents perhaps the most technology contractor-dense district in the nation, asked why Defense Department CIO Teri Takai doesn’t list any of her investments as “high risk” on the IT Dashboard. Many of those investments are a year or more past due and millions or billions of dollars over their original budgets. One system to deliver soldier health data online has even become grist for political comedy on The Daily Show because it still can’t connect with its partner system at the Veterans Affairs Department, despite years of trying.

VanRoekel told lawmakers that some Defense projects were undoubtedly at great risk, but that Takai wasn’t trying to cover up problems. She doesn’t control the budgets for those projects, he explained, and bases her reviews on assessments from deep inside the military services and other Defense agencies. So who should Connolly haul before his subcommittee and bawl out for the poor project performance? The answer isn’t clear.

As always, go read the whole thing. It’s worth re-reading Bruce Landis’s article at the Providence (RI) Journal about the woes of their state DMV re-engineering effort; that article shows that many of the same factors negatively impact IT projects on a state level. And finally, it’s also worth reading the IDA report on the $1 billion failed Air Force ERP integration project.

Here is the core issue: large IT projects are difficult under the best of circumstances, and government IT projects are almost inevitably large, if not very, very large. Furthermore, any large IT project is subject to organizational politics; government IT projects can run afoul of real-world politics as well. All in all, it’s remarkable that as many projects succeed as they do.



About the Author:

Webster is Principal and Founder at at Bruce F. Webster & Associates, as well as an Adjunct Professor for the BYU Computer Science Department. He works with organizations to help them with troubled or failed information technology (IT) projects. He has also worked in several dozen legal cases as a consultant and as a testifying expert, both in the United States and Japan. He can be reached at 303.502.4141 or at

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