MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
A federal IT project plagued with high-profile problems, integration breakdowns involving dozens of contractors, and taxpayers footing a multimillion-dollar price tag. Well, that scenario has also played out in the United Kingdom - so many times, in fact, that it led to big changes in how government tech work gets done there. NPR's Elise Hu has that story.
ELISE HU, BYLINE: By now, you can hardly turn a channel without hearing about the tech failures plaguing HealthCare.gov. Serious problems make for biting satire, like this from "The Daily Show's" John Oliver.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE DAILY SHOW")
JOHN OLIVER: There is a small risk that applicants might get sucked into a Tron-like, cyber-bureaucratic nightmare with no escape.
HU: The site to help Americans in 36 states sign up for health coverage cost at least $80 million. And weeks after its rocky rollout, it still doesn't completely work.
MIKE BRACKEN: It feels a bit like "Groundhog Day" to where we were three or four years ago.
HU: That is Mike Bracken, a technologist who watched national IT programs fail again and again in his home, the United Kingdom. The tipping point for the U.K. government came when a system for the National Health Service got contracted out, cost more than a billion pounds and - you guessed it - didn't work right for its end-users.
BRACKEN: I think that was the moment when both politicians and civil servants felt it's time to try another tack here because we have grown accustomed to too many technology failures in government and also, our digital services aren't keeping up with digital services outside of government.
HU: So the U.K. changed up its entire approach to government tech projects. Instead of multiple agencies procuring different contractors for their individual jobs, it put digital at the heart of government. Parliament created the government digital service, attracted 300 technologists to work for it and gave Mike Bracken a cabinet-level position as its boss.
BRACKEN: Technologies aren't things that are binary. You don't procure them. They're living systems and you have to have people who look after them and develop them iteratively and change and grow with them. And you need those skills in the heart of government.
HU: This in-house team simplified nearly all public services across agencies. Voter registration, tax payments, student loan applications and passport renewal are all available through one site and one streamlined system. Doing it this way instead of contracting out has saved British taxpayers nearly $20 million a year.
BRACKEN: We don't go in the government digital services to save money. We go to create great services and saving money is the byproduct of doing that.
HU: Not everyone was on board with these tech reforms. Bracken's biggest critics said putting technologists inside government would stifle business investment. That critic, Tim Gregory, the president of the U.K. branch of CGI. Yes, that CGI, the biggest contractor on healthcare.gov. For his part, President Obama is trying to make a distinction between his health care law and the technology powering it.
PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: The Affordable Care Act is not just a website.
HU: Bracken says that's the wrong perspective.
BRACKEN: I don't think you would hear politicians say, well, the government buildings, they're not the government because you have to go to government buildings to transact with them. So, Web services are indivisible from public services. And that's a generational message that I think the Web generation understands.
HU: He hopes America's huge, high-profile tech failure can lead to big, systemic changes in how government approaches technology. Elise Hu, NPR News, Washington.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio.