Originally Published in USA Today
The HealthCare.gov meltdown may be dominating headlines, but the Obamacare website isn’t the only Internet fiasco underway. The online version of the Common Application, used by more than 500 universities for vetting students, is having problems, too. While the application has long been available, the troubled launch of a new online system led Irena Smith, a college admissions expert, to tell NPR it was starting to look like “application Armageddon.”
As someone who has built websites for close to 20 years, there is something surreal about college students and insurance applicants alike taking to Twitter and Facebook to bemoan all the trouble mere websites are causing for their real lives. But we shouldn’t be surprised.
A study, released last week by Computer World, revealed that 94% of IT projects in the past decade with budgets of greater than $10 million, in government and out, launched with major problems or simply failed. Big launches and big flops have become the norm.
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With each new gadget we buy, our expectations for technology grow. There are glitches, but mostly smaller-scale technology works. One reason is that we’ve developed nimble systems for developing complexity. A mantra in open-source development is “release early and often.” Start small. Make sure your assumptions work. Then build a step at a time.
Most technical leaders I know wouldn’t allow a massive public launch of a highly touted program without smaller phased roll-outs. The approach to both HealthCare.gov and the Common Application makes it clear that there is a growing gap between traditional institutions, such as government and universities, and the technology most Americans use to navigate their lives. If our leaders cannot close that gap, trust in core institutions will continue to fall, and we’ll keep seeking smaller and faster alternatives.
Our leaders aren’t equipped to change that. Most politicians, educators and executives remain unaware of how to hold contractors and programmers accountable. The danger is that a lack of knowledgeable leadership and high-profile failures will kill new projects in the cradle. For example, it’s obvious that the IRS should have a TurboTax-like service freely available. But right now, who would propose that government try bold new IT initiatives?
Perhaps what is required for this new challenge is something old-fashioned: expertise and accountability. It is time for a Cabinet-level technology manager to effectively implement and manage IT across the federal government as a critical arm of policy and politics. Think Bobby Kennedy meets Larry Page.
In 2009, President Obama took a small step in the right direction, naming Vivek Kundra the first federal chief information officer. Kundra worked hard to bring transparency to a technology culture riddled with inefficiency and failure. Recent events show that culture hasn’t changed enough. The transformational power of technology needs a leader with the clout to make it work.
We could be late to the game, but not too late. Our future is more technology, not less. We must learn quickly from today’s mistakes because the stakes will only grow.
Nicco Mele, an adjunct faculty member at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, isauthor of The End of Big and was webmaster for Howard Dean’s 2004 presidential bid.