I’ve had a “lightbulb moment” about the problem with the acquisition of IT systems in the Defense Department. The flash was so blinding that several of my co-workers have now filed for disability benefits.
Like most blinding-flashes-of-the-obvious, the insight was that the question was wrong.
Let me lead up to it: Beth McGrath (the DoD Deputy Chief Management Officer) famously testified to Congress:
Our current approach to implementing IT systems takes too long, costs too much, and often fails to deliver the performance improvements we seek. On average, it takes 81 months in DoD from when an IT program is first funded, to when it is fielded. Given the rapid state of improvement in the IT field, this means that we are delivering systems that are outdated before we ever turn them on. In contrast, the iPhone took two years from concept to delivery. It is clear that we need a different approach.
DoD personnel are completely fascinated by, and oriented towards, buying systems. Here’s the problem: in today’s world, most IT systems exist to implement a service. There are not even words in our government lexicon for this; it is hard to even ask the right questions. A “system” is just a tool. It exists to make some task easier or possible. Operating an IT system is often complicated; it requires specialized expertise and there’s more to providing a service than is immediately apparent. By itself, the operation of an IT system could be a service, but really it’s the mission function that the system enables that is the actual service being provided. “Running ATAAPS” (Automated Time and Attendance Production System) is a service, but it’s not running the software application that matters – the real service is timecard processing and reporting.