6 keys to avoiding another 'grand design' failure

Agency executives must learn to resist the temptation of developing sweeping modernization programs, writes Frank McDonough, a former GSA official.

Consultant Frank A. McDonough is former deputy associate administrator of the General Services Administration’s Office of Intergovernmental Solutions.

Grand designs have been around since the Great Pyramid of Giza, and modern designs involving computer-based information systems have been around since the 1960s — and have failed regularly.

Each new generation of government managers hears the mythical Sirens calling them to the rocky shoals of grand designs. It’s hard to resist the temptation to develop programs that push to the edge of emerging technology while aggregating all possible requirements, including those that are barely understood.

Sometimes the government gets value for its money, sometimes it does not. Although numerous midlevel and low-dollar contracts provide good results, many programs at the grand-design level fail with hundreds of millions, even billions, of taxpayer dollars wasted. If you doubt me, try searching for “failed federal modernization programs” and skim the first 100 hits.

Asking why major systems fail with regularity is like asking why there are no more .400 hitters in Major League Baseball. Success is simply too difficult.

You could write a book about the Homeland Security Department’s SBInet, the Federal Aviation Administration’s efforts to modernize air traffic control systems, the Internal Revenue Service’s tax systems modernization project and other failed programs from recent decades. In fact, former IRS commissioner Charles Rossotti did just that when he wrote “Many Unhappy Returns: One Man’s Quest to Turn Around the Most Unpopular Organization in America.”

The government equivalent of a Razzie award for the worst performance in the past 30 years or so must go to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, although many others are in the running. In 1982, USPTO began an ambitious program to bring better, more modern tools to patent examiners. Yet in 2009, Director David Kappos said the agency had a backlog of more than 770,000 patent applications, “long waiting periods for patent review, information systems regarded as outdated and an application process in need of reform.”

Currently, Vivek Kundra, the federal CIO, is addressing troubled major systems, as is Roger Baker at the Veterans Affairs Department. But other people with a lot more power have made similar attempts in the past, including Al Gore when he was vice president and Franklin Raines when he was director of the Office of Management and Budget. Neither of them had much success.

My former organization at the General Services Administration had an effect for a few years when we published the popular report, “An Evaluation of the Grand Design Approach to Developing Computer Based Application Systems” (now available at www.frankamcdonough.com on the “Grand Design report” page).

Back in February, Kundra said, “We’re going to review investments and take decisive action so we can terminate projects that are not yielding dividends for the American people, turn around projects that can be turned around, and halt those where we believe that there’s serious issues.”

Those words could have come from a dozen or so senior government officials in the past 50 years. Will the results be different this time? The measure is how many systems Kundra cancels.

Meanwhile, here are six guidelines that could help government managers avoid ending up with a turnaround project.

  • Listen to contractors, but do not make them your only source of information. They can propose outlandish solutions to your outlandish ideas.
  • Avoid the certain failure of a grand design. Instead, insist on an incremental approach.
  • Use technologies readily available through the GSA schedules and governmentwide acquisition contracts and steer clear of beta products and other emerging technologies.
  • Recognize that government systems are huge, complex and one of a kind. If you managed an inventory system or a social networking project in a previous job, you are not ready for the grand design league.
  • Employ people on your immediate staff who understand complex systems development. Be sure they have about 10 years of true hands-on systems management experience.
  • If you choose to ignore these suggestions, polish up your résumé. You will be in a “special assistant-nothing job” or moving to the private sector in a few years.