Feds Have Troubled History With New Computer Systems

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When it comes to computer technology and the Internet, the federal government seems to have a tough time getting it right. That's the lesson not just from the recent health care website, but from years of trouble in the recent past.


Let's hear a little recent history now, a history of federal IT failures. The troubled website has many ancestors, as NPR's Brian Naylor reports.

BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: The new software system was glitchy, it was behind schedule and over budget. University of Pennsylvania computer scientist Matt Blaze said the problems were foreseeable.

MATT BLAZE, UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA: Even at the beginning, the requirements for this system weren't very well specified, and they kept being changed as they were going along. This is well understood to be a recipe for disaster in large software projects.

NAYLOR: Blaze was not talking about the website, although he might well have been. He was interviewed in 2005 as the FBI struggled to modernize its computer software. Botched government IT programs are a well-established tradition in the federal government. Along with the FBI, the IRS, the VA, the Defense Department and the DEA have all had software modernization issues. President Obama, in trying to explain the failures of the Obamacare website, says part of the problem is the way the government buys or procures IT. Here he is talking to The Wall Street Journal last week.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The way the federal government does procurement and does IT is just generally not very efficient. In fact, there's probably no bigger gap between the private sector and the public sector than IT.

NAYLOR: Aneesh Chopra has seen the problem from the inside. President Obama appointed Chopra as the government's first chief technology officer. Chopra says buying IT systems is a bit different than purchasing, say, office equipment.

ANEESH CHOPRA: When I want to buy furniture, I pretty much know what I want. But when I'm buying an IT system, it's a lot more art than it is science, with respect to which vendor can perform best against those requirements.

NAYLOR: A big problem, he says, is translating the idea behind the proposed system into language that programmers and vendors can understand.

CHOPRA: A policy might be, I would like folks to be able to shop for health plans. What that means from a software development standpoint is we need a catalog, we need a quarrying feature, we need some kind of search function, et cetera, et cetera. So a lot is often lost in that translation.

NAYLOR: Here's another problem: finding qualified contractors.

CLAY JOHNSON: The door of getting the government is extraordinarily heavy.

NAYLOR: Clay Johnson was on the IT team that helped get President Obama elected in 2008. Now head of a company called The Department of Better Technology, Johnson says there are a lot of small IT firms that would like to do business with the government but that it's easier said than done.

JOHNSON: If you want to start a Web design firm and you want to work with the private sector, then the first person that you would hire would be a Web designer. If you want to start a Web design firm and you want to work with government, then the first person that you should hire should be a lawyer.

NAYLOR: Because that's what you'll need, he says, to navigate the legalese and thousands of pages of regulations necessary to get a government contract. So how to fix this? Johnson says the government could lower some barriers to make it easier for smaller IT firms to do business with the government, and it would be smart, he says, to create a new department just to handle the government's IT programs.

JOHNSON: If you create a digital services department that's in charge of all of this technology, then not only do you get a better work result, but you also know who to fire when things go bad.

NAYLOR: While it's too late to do the website any good, Johnson is optimistic that with it clearly on the president's agenda, IT procurement reform is coming. Oh, that FBI project? After an investment of some $170 million in virtual case file, the system was scrapped before it was ever booted up. Brian Naylor, NPR News, Washington.

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