Hoover Dam 2016

 In Blog

I was at TED the other day, listening to a woman named Haley Van Dyck who heads up a new digital agency inside the White House speak about her experience in Government. She provided a few stats that I found truly amazing as it relates to the Government’s inability to launch and deploy large technology projects.

Stat #1: 40% of all IT projects that are launched by the Government never get completed; they literally stop half-way and are terminated, never seeing the light of day.

Stat #2: 94% of all projects are over-budget and behind schedule.

While this would be yet another amusing example of how inefficient Government can be at times if the numbers involved were tiny, the numbers involved are actually massive. The Government is the largest IT buyer in the world, spending nearly $86 billion annually.

So when we talk about 40% of IT projects being tossed aside, we’re talking about $35 billion dollars a year, as in a number roughly equal to the revenue of Oracle, our nation’s largest enterprise software provider.

Just one example of the insanity Haley described involved a new immigration site that the government tried to build. After spending six years and $1.2 billion dollars there was literally no product – and we’re talking about webifying immigration forms.

In the private sector, this type of initiative would have likely cost under a million dollars and could have been built by any average web development firm in about six months. And yet six years and over a billion dollars later, the Government was frozen.


As Bruce Lee once said, “If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.”

When it comes to innovating, the primary fuel of progress is action. It’s movement. And not just moving, but moving when the path forward is uncertain.

This is a skill set that evades most entrepreneurs and completely paralyzes the typical Government employee, whose career is enhanced by avoiding failure.

So we have a basic mismatch of skill set when it comes to innovating and governing. Innovators need to embrace risk to succeed, and governors need to avoid risk.

This doesn’t mean the Government should stay out of technology. To the contrary, they need to be more aggressive when it comes to embracing new tools and new technologies.

But they need to recognize their inherent limitation and compensate for it through partnerships and operating guidelines.

Don’t’ spent a billion dollars to build a website. Spend a million to build a prototype and see if it’s good enough to solve your needs. If not, spend another million. Then another million.

Don’t manage projects by committee and consensus. Assign small teams, give them small budgets, and hold them accountable.

In other words, don’t try to build rocket ships. Outsource the work to people like Space X where the cost and deliverable is both quantifiable and contained. And take baby steps. Give these outsource partners a small project and then, if they deliver, a slighter larger project, and so on and so on.

Moonshots are awesome and the Government is one of the few entities large enough to dream big and mobilize the energy and capital required to make those dreams a reality.

But that doesn’t mean they have to do all the work. To the contrary, I would argue they should do almost none of the work given the mismatch in skill set I described above.

Leonard Bernstein once said, “To achieve great things, two things are needed – a plan and not quite enough time.”

Entrepreneurs know this; they thrive on it. Especially today’s tech entrepreneurs.

The Government is in a unique position to use its balance sheet and organizational breadth to set in a motion a series of “moonshots” than can enhance our world and global quality of life in ways we never imagined.

Clean and renewable energy. Hyperspeed transportation. An end to cancer.

These are all within our reach – we just need the right catalyst and right focus, both of which can and should come from Government.

It’s time to embrace a new model; one designed for the 21st not 18th century. If the Government tried to build the Hoover Dam today it would likely take 50 years, cost $50 billion dollars and result in 50,000 lawsuits.

It’s a new era. We need a new model to land a man on the moon.

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