I have been researching and planning an essay on why it is so difficult for public organizations to develop effective software.
There are so many examples of multi-billion dollar failures that it’s almost a joke. it feels like governments spend dozens of times more money than the private sector to achieve a fraction of the results.
I want to understand precisely why this is the case.
Obviously, there are a lot of intelligent people working in the public sector. Still, I think there is something fundamentally wrong with the approach, and it forces intelligent people to do stupid things.
And generally speaking, most of these billions are spent not on wages for the public sector staff but actually on consultancies and private sector companies. So the blame could equally be partitioned to the private sector as well.
There are a few key things to understand with the government and public sector in general. and the first is that often a lot of projects get funded that are very questionable.
With software, you can build anything or at least it can appear that way.
You might get laughed out of a room if you suggest building a building that’s 20 kilometres long and 10 kilometres high, but the same level of ridiculousness can be applied to building software products, and everyone will take the idea seriously.
And even if a project should exist, they are sometimes designed for failure. This is due to the procurement methods used in the way the RFPs are structured.
These requests for proposal documents can run into hundreds or even thousands of pages with painstaking detail — and this is before any users have been spoken to or any research has been conducted.
Then you can hire the best private consultancies and software development houses to build your project. Still, if they’re just forced to build whatever is written in the RFP this will likely not match up to what’s actually practical and usable by end-users in reality.
The other thing is that often with the government, there is a tendency for the announcement of a project to be the big deal — getting it through legislation, getting the approvals and so on. But, the actual execution is almost like an afterthought.
More budget approval often signals a win. But this is misleading; smaller projects actually have higher success rates.
So it will be interesting to dive into this topic and understand why governments and public sector agencies fail so often at software projects and then what can be done about it.
It is unlikely that the solution is more bureaucracy, more oversight and more process, rather it is actually trying to do things differently and more simply.