When it comes to state technology projects, the Star Tribune says we “need what other states already have.” (“Fixing IT system should be at the top of Minnesota’s to-do list,” editorial, Jan. 27.) But we don’t need to become like other states, because we already are! Failing technology projects are the norm in most states, not the exception.
In recent years, California, Texas, New York, Massachusetts, Oregon, Nebraska, Florida and Pennsylvania, among many others, have all reported major failures. And failure is not unique to governments. A recent McKinsey report says half of all IT projects in all sectors with budgets of more than $15 million were 45 percent over budget, 7 percent behind schedule and delivering 56 percent less functionality than predicted. We don’t want to be like them. Furthermore, while fixing what’s wrong with MNLARS (the state’s Licensing and Registration System) is necessary, it won’t solve the underlying problems. Nor will it unleash the real potential of technology to help us deliver the government we want. To get there, we need six things.
First, we need to be passionate about the possibilities. Too much of government is operating using technology that is 10, 20 or 30 years old, while most of us live and work in a world where our apps are updated every week. We should not have to take a time machine back to the 20th century every time we want to access a government service. Rather, imagine that we are able to:
• Access every government service through a single app on any device, having securely confirmed our identity only once.
• Never have to stand in line or wait online — having all services always on, 24/7/365.
• Renew our driver’s, fishing, hunting and boating licenses without leaving home, even taking our own picture.
• Change our name, address, contact and other information by entering the updated information only one time, in one place.
• Have government fill out our taxes (they have all of the needed info already) so that all we do is make corrections and hit “submit.”
The possibilities are tremendous — and they will only get better. In fact, it is only through realizing these possibilities that we can get the government we want and are willing to pay for. Technology projects look expensive — and they are. But their cost pales beside the cost of doing nothing — condemning government to using 20th century tools to address 21st century challenges. Realizing those possibilities will happen only if we pursue them with passion. That takes dedicated leadership with a concrete vision against which every technology change is measured. We should never, ever, implement a major technology project that only gives us a new version of what we already have. Such big investments should lead to even bigger improvements in outcomes for citizens and operating costs, or we should not do them.
Second, technology projects are too important to be left to the technologists. Users — agency staff and the citizens they serve — must drive the design of any new system and must be the ultimate judge of its success.
Third, we need to resist the urge to build when we could buy, and resist the urge to buy when we could rent. When we build or buy technology — to make it our own — we own the obsolescence. With technology, obsolescence comes fast and goes deep. The result is old systems that aren’t up to date. Exactly what we have today.
Fourth, remember that the state is one government to the people it serves, made up of agencies and departments — not a bunch of independent actors. There needs to be a consistent citizen-centric strategy for where the state is going, supported by necessary policies and practices. In this case we need more unum and less pluribus.
Fifth, rather than a big-bang approach to big projects in which we work for years building the whole thing, then push the button and hope it works, adopt a “build a little, test a lot, fix what’s broken, then build a little more” approach. Doing so means taking smaller risks while also getting benefits sooner.
Finally, we need to get good people to lead all this, and pay them what it takes. But we also need to remember that for most people in most agencies of government, if they implement a big technology project, it is likely to be the first and only time that they will do so in their career. Handing them such a responsibility is like sending them off to cross the Amazon jungle alone. That’s nuts. We cannot responsibly send them out there without a guide. The people in the IT department must see that successfully guiding their agency colleagues to using IT to enable better results at lower costs is their prime directive. In fact, they should be accountable to the agencies for doing so.
The gap between our 21st century expectations and government’s 20th century capabilities is growing every day. We don’t want to be like other states, falling further behind. We want to be the first state that can say of our government services — “There’s an App for That.”
Peter Hutchinson is a former Minnesota finance commissioner. Most recently, he led Accenture’s public service strategy practice.