Why ‘Open and Frugal’ Should Be the Default for Government IT

So many projects cost too much and take too long. It's time for a better approach.
May 5, 2016
By Kevin C. Desouza  |  Contributor
A Foundation Professor in Arizona State University's School of Public Affairs

With public-sector information-technology projects at any level of government, one does not have to look too far to find examples of waste and worse. In the wake of a series of failed projects, Hawaii is auditing its last four years of IT spending. On the local-government level, it would be hard to find a better example of what can go wrong than New York City's CityTime payroll-system project, abandoned after its costs ballooned from $63 million to $700 million amid mismanagement and outright corruption.

Few technology projects fail that spectacularly, but the list of those that falter badly goes on and on at every level of government. Do IT projects always have to cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars and take years or even decades of effort? No and no. We need to think differently about designing information systems for governments, adopting whenever possible approaches that make the most use of open-source software and that aim from the outset to avoid waste. The new default for government IT should be "open and frugal."

As obvious and sensible as that may sound, it usually isn't the way things work. As I meet with public-sector CIOs, I am often startled by how many still think in terms of building proprietary systems from the ground up -- essentially outsourcing the work while retaining the responsibility for failure. Simply put, this thinking must be retired.

There are encouraging signs that that is beginning to happen. A system for managing unemployment taxes and benefits, built by a dozen Idaho state employees at a cost of just $7 million, is being enhanced for use by other states. At the local-government level, dedicated innovation teams and civic innovation labs are taking the open-and-frugal approach to new levels, as is the federal General Services Administration's digital-services team known as 18F.

So what are the advantages of an open and frugal approach to technology? The use of low-cost or even freely shared open-source code not only saves money but also enables governments to move beyond the limits imposed by a single vendor. Governments can re-use the code across various agencies and applications, and making the code open and available enables them to engage the crowd in building new systems and maintaining existing ones.

A frugal approach to technology innovation also involves finding ways to purchase technology outside of the traditional, complex government procurement process. The 18F team, for example, is experimenting with "micro-purchase authority" to allow agencies to acquire low-cost code in a way that engages smaller, more agile vendors than those that are likely to respond to a typical RFP: small businesses, individual entrepreneurs and even graduate students looking for a way to showcase their talents and capabilities. Early prototypes and solutions can be designed in civic labs and then moved out to agencies for full-scale implementation.

Open and frugal innovation gives governments a way to engage and work not only with local entrepreneurs and small-scale innovators but also with the wider community, which is more likely to accept a product that it's had a hand in developing. This is different from most system development that happens in a closed environment, with the final product too often thrust upon users who've had no role in its development.

Open and frugal innovation also limits dependence on one or a few players. In an open-source environment, the process of prototyping and experimentation is agile, collaborative, incremental and iterative. As one person builds one piece of a project, another might be questioning an aspect of that development and coming up with a better approach. Moreover, if one person builds Phase I, someone else can come in and build Phase II.

Finally, open and frugal innovation approaches enable us to move solutions between governments. At the local level, collaboration across cities and regions is where learning and innovation can take place. Active engagement breeds the kind of discussion and idea-sharing that is not likely to happen in any other environment. When it comes to technology in government, that's how good things happen.