The State Worker: The human factor in government technology

11/14/2013 12:00 AM

11/14/2013 7:37 AM

As you see government-technology-gone-bad stories – and there’s always the next one – look for the human element.

It’s easy to blame software. Here’s a fictional start to a story synthesized from a half-dozen reports in The Bee: “The Department of XYZ axed its $XXX million Serious Network Access For You project – dubbed CalSNAFU – after the program’s test run ended in a tangle that impacted finances/services/public policy and will take weeks/months/years to unwind.”

Then the government agency and private-sector contractor point fingers. Outraged lawmakers hold a hearing. Other IT project leaders say they’ve learned from CalSNAFU, just as CalSNAFU’s leaders said they learned from earlier IT flameouts.

The people part of these tales isn’t as simple to explain and presents a bigger government challenge.

Take this week’s Bee report on the state Department of Fair Employment and Housing’s Houdini case-management computer system. The agency, which handles discrimination complaints, switched a year ago from a 1990s computer system to a paperless program that runs on the Internet. Productivity plunged.

Department Director Phyllis Cheng says the numbers are coming back up. Meanwhile, some employees have blamed her for installing an off-the-shelf system they say didn’t fit their needs and for failing to provide adequate training. Cheng said, in essence, that staff has struggled to change.

Is Cheng unreasonable? Are employees more interested in the status quo than adapting? Both?

Or consider the HealthCare.gov website gagged up by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Candidate Barack Obama ran the most tech-savvy presidential campaign ever. President Barack Obama now presides over a massive government IT failure.

Former Obama campaign tech czar Michael Slaby told The Daily Beast, “The campaign was working in an environment that was vastly more unconstrained in terms of what we could do, what technologies we could use, how we could build, how we hired people, how we procured outside help. All of those variables would be wildly in favor of the campaign. They’re all really stacked against the White House.”

Procurement and process are people problems, not software shortfalls.

In an era of ubiquitous automation, people have expectations of government that far exceed those for private-sector systems.

A Netflix app crash has never cost anyone their apartment. When a private business grapples with new IT, it suffers the consequences. When the Employment Development Department’s recent computer switch snagged, it cut off benefit checks for nearly 150,000 Californians.

So government technology is about more than picking the right software. It’s about leadership inspiring bureaucracy to change and, somehow, finding room for the human error that comes with innovation.

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