If the HealthCare.gov website fiasco proves anything it is how critical a usable website is.
“For the first time in history, a president has had to stand in the Rose Garden to apologize for a broken Web site,” Clay Johnson writes for the New York Times. That is extraordinary. Think back even 10 years. Would any government website have got that sort of attention then?
So, the Web has become truly critical to society. And this is really positive. Because the Web is the interface between humans and technology. When there is a focus on the Web there is a focus on how things work, how easy it is to do things.
The web exposes giant technological investments that are hidden behind the scenes. And as anybody who works in the technology world knows, a huge number of these systems are massively expensive and grossly inefficient.
"HealthCare.gov is only the latest episode in a string of information technology debacles by the federal government,” Johnson continues. “Indeed, according to the research firm the Standish Group, 94 percent of large federal information technology projects over the past 10 years were unsuccessful -- more than half were delayed, over budget or didn’t meet user expectations, and 41.4 percent failed completely.”
These are truly astonishing figures. Really scary stuff. Many government technology projects are practically guaranteed to fail. They may start off with great objectives but they quickly go downhill from there.
The government has to follow a code called the Federal Acquisition Regulation,” Johnson explains, “which is more than 1,800 pages of legalese that all but ensure that the companies that win government contracts, like the ones put out to build HealthCare.gov, are those that can navigate the regulations best, but not necessarily do the best job.”
I had a discussion with a major government department last year. They said they’d love to carry out a top tasks analysis but it would take at least four months to get it through procurement and would involve a horrendous amount of paperwork.
In order to avoid corruption, many governments have created bureaucratic quagmires that practically guarantee failure. In these worlds, the very last thing on anyone’s mind is making the system easy to use.
But there are positive signs that this is about to change. The British government showed real courage and vision in relation to how it has managed the gov.uk website. Flexible, adaptive, lean and relentlessly focused on customer needs, it is a shining light and a clear statement that government can get technology right.
The fact that a website has embarrassed the president of the United States is also something of note. This is the tech savvy President whose own campaign website pioneered some of the most innovative electioneering techniques. This latest debacle will hopefully force the U.S. government to reexamine its entire approach to technology.
There are many great government web people out there and they struggle daily to deliver simple and fast services to citizens. They need a new model. It’s not the website that’s broken but the entire way government approaches technology. We have to put the citizen first, not the procedures and the policies and the ticking of boxes and the attempt to buy something that does a million little things but rarely does the important things well.