Bureaucracy and Modern Technology: Can the Government Deliver on Big Projects?

Can the federal government attract and hire the best and brightest tech experts? The failure of the healthcare.gov website has put the government’s processes in the spotlight.

The disastrous introduction of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) may have repercussions within the federal government.

No doubt, the administration is embarrassed by the publicity and problems of healthcare.gov. The question becomes: how does the government deal more effectively with major projects like health care and do it effectively?

For those who remember the accomplishments of NASA in putting a man on the moon in the 1960’s using computer technology that has less power than a modern cell phone, putting together a fast, effective website would seem like a minor task. But, based on the government’s public failure in rolling out the new health care program, the effectiveness of government is being questioned.

According to the Wall Street Journal, one solution being considered is creating a new federal agency. The theory, apparently, is that having an agency specialize in bringing together federal technology specialists would enable the government to manage these projects more effectively. A cynic would question whether creating another federal agency is a good way to reduce the bureaucratic process that exists within government and whether such an agency would attract the talent necessary to work on major technology projects. While this approach may work, it also represents a common bureaucratic answer to fixing a problem: create more bureaucracy and spend more money to fix a problem caused, in part, by an organization that is already too bureaucratic.

Another idea being considered, according to the Journal, is expanding federal direct hiring authority. This would allow agencies to more effectively compete for information technology specialists.

The current federal hiring process usually requires evaluating multiple candidates for every position, lengthy questionnaires and giving preference to veterans. With any luck, an agency can make an offer to a prospective candidate in about 80 days or so. On the other hand, according to the Journal, talented technology workers are likely to receive multiple offers from private sector companies within two weeks. Presumably, the best qualified candidates are no longer available by the time an agency gets around to making an offer.

The Journal cites two reasons for the poor performance by the federal government: “rigid practices adopted by risk-averse officials and the government’s inability to attract top-notch technology talent.”

One problem in attracting the best technology specialists is  a widely held perception that the government is more focused on “punishing failure rather than rewarding innovation.” In a notable quote from the Journal describing the government process, “There are dozens of rules, and lots of people who can say no in that process, and very few risk absorbers: someone willing to stand up and say, ‘Go forth and do well, I’ll take the risk.”

Part of the problem may be that the federal government workforce is older than many similar professionals in the private sector.  According to the Office of Personnel Management, there are eight times as many federal technology employees over age 50 as the number who are under age 30. This would suggest that the government may be using specialists that are more familiar with older technology and methods and may be a drawback in meeting the requirements of the newer technology that, presumably, works faster and better than older models and methods.

About the Author

Ralph Smith has several decades of experience working with federal human resources issues. He has written extensively on a full range of human resources topics in books and newsletters and is a co-founder of two companies and several newsletters on federal human resources. Follow Ralph on Twitter: @RalphSmith47