These ideas need to be retired: Technology practices that are stifling public sector success

Editor’s Note: TechTank is launching a new blog series titled Ideas to Retire that identifies outdated practices in public sector IT management and suggests new ideas for improved outcomes.  This introduction will be followed by two new essays each week over ten weeks.

“Scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” (Max Planck 1948)

IT and government: Revolution of ideas needed

At a June 29, 1956 symposium on advanced programming methods, Herbert D. Benington introduced the concept of the waterfall method of software development.1 The waterfall method of software development has been the staple of software development for decades (though it was later amended to include the concept of a prototype). In was only in 1994 that the Department of Defense, under MIL-STD-498, began to express a “preference” for alternative methodologies. However, as recently as 2013, in the failed launch of, major parts of the waterfall methodology were still being used and one of its key tenets (holding testing until the end) was a primary reason cited for its failure.

Why did the key principles of waterfall persist for so long? Why did the federal government insist on using this approach for arguably the most visible systems implementation in the last decade? Why did waterfall, with its legion of criticisms, continue to flourish in government long after the private sector generally recognized it as archaic? Said differently, why was waterfall still alive more than five decades after its popularization and more than two decades after the federal government expressed a preference for other ways of doing things?

Similar issues related to outdated methodologies are seen in the state and local government realm. For example, while the federal government has been helped in dealing with cybersecurity by the security industry, state and local governments are struggling. The reason for this struggle is simple: state and local government lack the expertise in-house to adequately deal with cybersecurity issues arising from multiple products from multiple vendors. Furthermore, they lack the budget to hire in-house experts or hire consulting firms to help. Cybersecurity, long a federal problem, has invaded the state and local government space but current approaches and funding ignore this caustic migration.

Outdated practices can be found in procurement rules as well. Government Technology magazine recently laid out some of the ways in which procurement rules stifle innovation:

  • Procurement rules that encourage large “winner take all” procurements
  • Procurement laws not keeping up with technology
  • Contracting requirements that scare off bidders
  • Procurement rules that stifle rather than encourage communication
  • Government employees that lack the necessary skills to procure what is needed

As a result, it is not surprising that the GAO is adding “IT acquisitions” to its list of high risk federal programs. According to the GAO, “federal IT investments frequently fail or incur cost overruns and schedule slippage while contributing little to mission-related outcomes”. Despite this, the federal government clings to the old way of doing things and federal agencies have only fully adopted about 23 percent of the GAO’s recommendations for improving the public sector’s use of technology.

Clearly some within government are clinging to the old ways of doing things. The existing paradigm of public sector technology is no longer working and old ideas might need to be retired and new ideas need to take their place.

Identifying ideas behind the status quo

What is the government’s status quo bias and how is this bias causing government to cling to ideas that should die?

This is a very basic, yet critical, issue that stands in our way to realizing the full potential of IT when it comes to transforming our public agencies, delivery of public services, and the crafting and execution of public policies – antiquated ideas that hold us back. Adherence to these ideas is causing two undesirable outcomes: (1) an unacceptable gap between the promise of technology and its current failure rate and (2) a failure to fully realize the benefits of technology.

In this series, which will run on Tech Tank over the next ten weeks, we identify and target the ideas that are responsible for this disconnect. There are two major sources of ideas that must die:

  • First are obsolete ideas, which are those ideas that worked well in previous technological generations or even societal generations but are not robust enough to hold up to our current and future realities.
  • Second are “good on the surface” ideas that may seem good at first glance, but underlying them are complexities that render that thinking useless.

The inspiration for this blog series is John Brockman’s recent book, This Idea Must Die, on scientific theories that are blocking progress. In this book, Brockman gathered essays from notable scientific thinkers to propose provocative essays on limitations of current scientific theory. By doing so, Brockman hopes to break science from its self-imposed shackles to greater heights. The same thing is true with the public sector’s use of technology and, to paraphrase Max Planck, our discipline is only advancing one funeral at a time. In periods of rapid technological change, we need to move faster than funerals.

Our contributors are taken from practice, academe, and public policy circles. They are tasked with defining an idea that may need to be retired. Each evidence-based contribution (either as an outcome of research or practitioner experience) does three things: share an idea that needs to be retired, support why the idea needs to be put up for possible retirement, and propose an alternative viewpoint in place of the idea. The ideas proposed are the views of the authors alone, and do not represent official views of any organization they work or consult for, community they manage, or any agency that has provided them funding for research projects. These views are those of the authors in their private capacity.

Our goal is to move the practice and research on government technology management ahead. We believe that only if we really debate the value of current ideas will there be room for new ideas and get folks to think of new solutions rather than sticking to what they know (even if it does not work).

Why today?

Why is now the time to demand change? Part of the timing is driven by the Federal IT Acquisition Reform Act (FITARA). FITARA empowers CIOs with more authority and makes them more responsible. So, if we are going to strive for better results, we need these newly empowered CIOs to not simply cling to old ideas but actually innovate and bring in fresh perspectives. The same thing is true at the state and local government levels where we see greater empowerment of CIOs. We cannot have institutions that are rigid and clinging to old ideas; we need openness to new things.

The status quo in public sector IT has stood for 20 years; it is time now for a paradigm shift. More dialogue on the issue with the right questions being asked must happen now. If not, we have little hope that new initiatives will fare better than existing initiatives. Given that investments in IT are expected to increase due to the behavioral science initiative and the smart cities initiative, the time is now. These initiatives signify a willingness by leaders to invest in innovative approaches to government operations because they present an opportunity to realize greater success. More of this innovation should be directed to IT management. If things do not change, more money will be plunged into an outdated system that operates inconsistently when managing large scale projects.

A call to action

Our conclusion from all of this is simple: government is stymied by outmoded ideas and can do better. Fixing this requires both thoughtful insight and courage.

First, our contributors to this series have identified some critical areas where old and even bad ideas have become entrenched and need to die. While we applaud our contributors, every one of them would likely acknowledge that these are not the only ideas that need to be retired. By engaging the entire public service community, other ideas can be put up for discussion from a value and usefulness perspective. On a routine basis, as environmental conditions change and new management and/or technological innovations are discovered, we must take stock of our current ideas and see which ones are nearing their expiration dates.

Second, it requires courage. The status quo is comfortable and, to be quite honest, a lot of people have made a career out of milking a dead idea. This has to change. In every part of government, the public service community needs to acknowledge that these ideas need to be retired and put together a plan to do so. Developing and enacting a plan takes courage but we have no doubt that the wisdom of killing a comfortable but outdated myth is worthwhile.

1 United States, Navy Mathematical Computing Advisory Panel (29 June 1956), Symposium on advanced programming methods for digital computers, [Washington, D.C.]: Office of Naval Research, Dept. of the Navy