Why Does Building Software for the Government Cost So Much?

The latest US government software project under the news media spotlight is the healthcare.gov website. The "at least $350 million" project has let few visitors complete the sign up process. When the sign up process actually is successful, the wrong data is often being sent to insurers. The New York Times covered how technical issues turned into political difficulties:

For the first time in history, a president has had to stand in the Rose Garden to apologize for a broken Web site. But HealthCare.gov is only the latest episode in a string of information technology debacles by the federal government.

Clay Johnson and Harper Reed NY Times Op-Ed

Despite the current issues with healthcare.gov, at least the website launched on time. The same cannot be said for many expensive government projects, such as the FBI's Virtual Case Management System.

Why are these high profile failures and massive cost overruns so common in government software development projects? This is a list of the most significant issues that arise on these projects from my personal experience in software development across several government agencies (US Army, FBI, CFPB) and commercial and non-profit organizations (Marriott, Freddie Mac, The Motley Fool, NTI, GWU).

Those Holding the Purse Strings Are Not Users

The government has a formal title for the guy who's in charge of the contract and related financial decisions: Contracting Officer Representative (COR). The COR is generally not an actual user. In a worst case scenario there are multiple owners, none of whom will actually use the software, and everyone has to put their stamp on every decision. Non-users are inclined to approve flashy features and functionality that have no mission value but look good during a demo.

There needs to be a better way to determine what value is provided to actual users. However, even in this case there are often problems. Many end users do not want a new software system. They sometimes do not want to retrain on a new system or are concerned that their jobs will be replaced once the new system is up and running.

Time (Money) Is Needed to Justify Every Choice

Justifying the use of common software libraries can often take multiple weeks over periods of several months. Software developers are often asked to create lengthy white papers and extensive documentation for simple code reuse scenarios. Often this culture discourages software developers from reusing proven, tested code because it would take longer to justify their choice of library, than to rewrite the code from scratch.

In addition, the developer is accepts responsibility that if there are any future issues with that reused code, justified or not, she is to blame. Essentially the development process takes much longer than expected so that everyone can cover their ass with documentation in case of failure.

Budget Process

All budget must be requested up front, often in multi-year estimates. The software development estimation process is impossible on such long time scales. Projects literally set themselves up for failure and inaccurate budgets before they even begin.

The flip side of this budget process situation is that even if a company believes it can solve a problem cheaply, they are incentivized to pad estimates because no further funding can be requested in the future.

No Third Party Services

Third party services are near and dear to my heart because when properly leveraged developers can build applications orders of magnitudes faster than by building everything from scratch.

The value proposition of third party services is clear. By paying New Relic $24 a month for instantly integrated, powerful application-level monitoring, I don't have to rebuild that functionality myself. New Relic has invested millions of dollars into their platform. There's no reason for me to duplicate that functionality, or the features of other platforms like Dropbox, Twilio, CopperEgg, Heroku (the list goes on and on) except to comply with often arbitrary government data regulations and information assurance questionnaires.

In some cases these regulations are justified. In other cases, there is no logical reason why data cannot be stored on an existing third party platform. Explaining why though goes back to the justification problem explained above.

"I Want Everything, or Nothing"

The culture around government projects remains skewed towards "big bang" project introductions. Gradually rolling out a new system to users is rare. The idea is that "unless every piece of functionality is there, it is useless" prevents systems from quickly getting into users' hands. Only when users are actually working with a system can they can determine what functionality is actually useful to them.

Government project phases are not iterative because they are often several months or years long. Agile software engineering demands short feedback loops on the maximum timescale of several weeks between production deployments.

In addition, government employee software developers and consultants often recommend reasonable approaches to solving problems iteratively but culturally there is significant resistance to those ideas.

No Quick Fixes

The above problems are difficult issues to solve. Anyone with a "silver bullet" for how government can easily build large complex software project is selling snake oil. Increasing success rates on major government software development projects will only come about through a combination of cultural changes, greater technical understanding (by everyone involved in projects, not just software developers), and a budget process that allows project funding on less expensive iterative engineering methods.