Clay Shirky: “This is not just a hiring problem, or a procurement problem. This is a management problem, and a cultural problem. The preferred method for implementing large technology projects in Washington is to write the plans up front, break them into increasingly detailed specifications, then build what the specifications call for. It’s often called the waterfall method, because on a timeline the project cascades from planning, at the top left of the chart, down to implementation, on the bottom right.
Like all organizational models, waterfall is mainly a theory of collaboration. By putting the most serious planning at the beginning, with subsequent work derived from the plan, the waterfall method amounts to a pledge by all parties not to learn anything while doing the actual work. Instead, waterfall insists that the participants will understand best how things should work before accumulating any real-world experience, and that planners will always know more than workers.
This is a perfect fit for a culture that communicates in the deontic language of legislation. It is also a dreadful way to make new technology. If there is no room for learning by doing, early mistakes will resist correction. If the people with real technical knowledge can’t deliver bad news up the chain, potential failures get embedded rather than uprooted as the work goes on….
Given examples of technological success from commercial firms, a common response is that the government has special constraints, and thus cannot develop projects piecemeal, test with citizens, or learn from its mistakes in public. I was up at the Kennedy School a month after the launch, talking about technical leadership and Healthcare.gov, when one of the audience members made just this point, proposing that the difficult launch was unavoidable, because the government simply couldn’t have tested bits of the project over time.
That observation illustrates the gulf between planning and reality in political circles. It is hard for policy people to imagine that Healthcare.gov could have had a phased rollout, even while it is having one.
At launch, on October 1, only a tiny fraction of potential users could actually try the service. They generated concrete errors. Those errors were handed to a team whose job was to improve the site, already public but only partially working. The resulting improvements are incremental, and put in place over a period of months. That is a phased rollout, just one conducted in the worst possible way.
The vision of “technology” as something you can buy according to a plan, then have delivered as if it were coming off a truck, flatters and relieves managers who have no idea and no interest in how this stuff works, but it’s also a breeding ground for disaster. The mismatch between technical competence and executive authority is at least as bad in government now as it was in media companies in the 1990s, but with much more at stake…
Now, and from now on, government will interact with its citizens via the internet, in increasingly important ways. This is a non-partisan issue; whichever party is in the White House will build and launch new forms of public service online. Unfortunately for us, the last new technology the government adopted for interacting with citizens was the fax; our senior political figures have little habit of talking to their own technically adept employees.
If I had to design a litmus test for whether our political class grasps the internet, I would look for just one signal: Can anyone with authority over a new project articulate the tradeoff between features, quality, and time?
When a project cannot meet all three goals—a situation Healthcare.gov was clearly in by March—something will give. If you want certain features at a certain level of quality, you’d better be able to move the deadline. If you want overall quality by a certain deadline, you’d better be able to delay or drop features. And if you have a fixed feature list and deadline, quality will suffer.
Intoning “Failure is not an option” will be at best useless, and at worst harmful. There is no “Suddenly Go Faster” button, no way you can throw in money or additional developers as a late-stage accelerant; money is not directly tradable for either quality or speed, and adding more programmers to a late project makes it later. You can slip deadlines, reduce features, or, as a last resort, just launch and see what breaks.
Denying this tradeoff doesn’t prevent it from happening. If no one with authority over the project understands that, the tradeoff is likely to mean sacrificing quality by default. That just happened to this administration’s signature policy goal. It will happen again, as long politicians can be allowed to imagine that if you just plan hard enough, you can ignore reality. It will happen again, as long as department heads imagine that complex technology can be procured like pencils. It will happen again as long as management regards listening to the people who understand the technology as a distasteful act.”