Government technology is moving too slowly

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Let’s talk about the exciting topic of public procurement! Fabulous? !

Seriously, the way government agencies buy technology is useful context in understanding the Pentagon’s sudden cancellation on Tuesday of a technology project that has been described as essential to modernizing the US military. When government technology goes awry, one of the culprits is often budget bureaucracy that goes against the pace of technological progress.

The goal of the Department of Defense project, Joint Enterprise Defense Infrastructure, known by the acronym JEDI as “Star Wars,” was to purchase off-the-shelf cloud computing software to put the US military on a new wave of technology. Microsoft got a $10 billion contract in 2019, but has since been blocked due to Amazon accusations that former President Donald J. Trump unnecessarily interfered with the contracting process.

years of Discrediting technology companies who felt unfairly ignored, may have been a ruin for JEDI. This contract battle has been extraordinarily messy, but it also highlights a deeper problem that has made much government technology difficult and deadly: By the time a government agency buys something, the technology may be past its prime or no longer meet their needs.

The Department of Defense began making plans for JEDI in 2017, and now it’s starting over essentially by requiring companies to submit new contract offers.

While reading the news, I flashed back to a conversation I had last year with Robin Carnahan, which was recently confirmed. As administrator of the US General Services Administration. “Stop thinking about digital infrastructure like you’re going to fund a bridge,” said Carnahan, who was working with him at the time. Digital response from the United States, an organization that helps local governments modernize their technology.

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What I meant is that local, state, and federal governments usually pay for roads or other expensive projects once after long deliberation, and then try not to overthink it for the next several decades.

But this is an inherent flaw in public procurement of technology. Long budget cycles and government mindsets do not match the pace of technology and its need for continuous improvement and maintenance.

Carnahan gave me an example of government buying software for its user interface software. To qualify, the company introducing the new program must prepare a proposal for the state’s labor department, and then lawmakers must approve the funds. This process may take two or three years.

This means that by the time the company gets the green light to create a website to handle unemployment claims, the technology on offer is already several years old. It takes more time to set up the website, run it, and update it according to the state’s specifications. It’s not a great result. You will not be happy if you buy a new smartphone and it comes with 2016 features and functions.

Byzantine bureaucracies and long delivery times also hinder technology outside government. The length of the car development process is one of the reasons In-car display and entertainment systems can be boring sometimes. By the time they arrive in your truck, the technology may have been designed years ago.

The sad thing about government technology is that it hasn’t always been this sad. The US government, and especially the military and intelligence agencies, have the best technology in the world. The military helped direct innovations, including computer chips, powerful databases, and the Internet.

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Governments still spend a fortune on technology, but the first and best customers for new products tend to be the people rather than the public sector. One reason is that we don’t take years to decide on new technologies.

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