Every president has his method of taming the leviathan of bureaucracy. Harry Truman tried vast reorganizations. Lyndon Johnson preferred cerebral task forces. Jimmy Carter tried feeding the beast, George W. Bush starving it.
President Barack Obama likes to appoint "czars." The idea is to give a smart and worthy mandarin — often from the consulting world — a small budget, an intractable problem and the mandate to fix it. About two dozen of them now roam Washington, by one count.
The latest is Mikey Dickerson, a celebrated Google engineer, appointed to lead a new team that will try to improve the government’s archaic computer systems and impenetrable websites. (Inevitably, he’s the "digital services czar.") The assignment results from Dickerson’s success in helping salvage HealthCare.gov after its ruinous rollout.
The plan is to eventually give Dickerson a team of perhaps two dozen to consult with the vast government IT bureaucracies, work to make their websites more appealing and user-friendly, and generally improve the way federal employees approach technology.
They’ll have their work cut out for them. The government spends some $80 billion a year on information technology, much of it apportioned among hundreds of contractors. Buying new equipment and services is a Byzantine undertaking that ensures that influential vendors, wise to the ways of Washington, often outmuscle smaller and more innovative competitors. Contracts tend to be long-term, while technology evolves by the day. Red tape abounds (the fearsome Federal Acquisition Regulation is 1,800 pages), and most agencies adhere to old-fashioned development models that typically result in slow, cumbersome, expensive systems.
Making things worse, top technology workers generally avoid government. It doesn’t pay much by Silicon Valley standards, its culture tends to reward clock-punching and box-ticking over innovation and risk, and the hiring process at the Office of Personnel Management can take months.
The results are predictable. In a recent study of large government IT projects, only 6.4 percent were successful. The rest were late, over budget or deficient. Almost half were outright failures. Anecdotes about distinctive catastrophes — such as the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s $170 million unworkable computer upgrade — are legion.
A czar can’t do much to fix such problems. To the extent that appointing one convinces people otherwise, it can actually make things worse by sapping the urgency for reform.
The Obama administration, to its credit, at least recognizes the problem. But a more comprehensive cure for the government’s digital infirmities will require, first, overhauling the procurement process for technology. A document the White House recently put out called the TechFAR Handbook has some good suggestions. The guiding principles should be flexibility and experimentation — neither typically in the bureaucrat’s comfort zone — and smaller companies and startups should get more consideration for contracts.
Second, some cultural changes could lure more digital talent to government work. A smart model is Britain’s Government Digital Service — a savvy and centralized in-house consultancy that works with agencies to cut tech costs and apply private-sector ideas. (Dickerson’s team is partly based on it.) Yet even that strategy won’t get far unless the government’s hiring practices can be accelerated for technologists, who can get private-sector job offers merely by showing up to the interview fully clothed.
So good luck to Mikey Dickerson. If nothing else, maybe he can import some Silicon Valley vigor and optimism to the capital. But one man with a hazy budget and a hypothetical staff won’t make much progress against the leviathan. That will take more ingenuity than even a Google prodigy has to offer.
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