The plight of the Affordable Care Act website has focused attention on a problem that seldom receives it — the absence of good management in the U.S. government. Despite more than three years of lead time and $400 million to $600 million in taxpayer money, the government can’t seem to deliver something that is bread and butter to the average online retailer.
Of course, the task is much more complex with health care, and there are plenty of excuses: poor coordination among technology contractors, shifting goals for the design of HealthCare.gov, the need to coordinate between federal and state governments. But these challenges are hardly unprecedented. Based on our experience in the public and private sectors, we’ve concluded that the core problem is that the federal government lacks many of the basic skills private firms rely on.
Over the past three decades, fierce global competition has forced corporate America to modernize how it manages projects so that they can be delivered as efficiently as possible. The federal government, insulated from market pressures, has fallen badly behind. In government, managerial jobs — such as chief financial officers, technology officers and procurement executives — are considered the least glamorous, a poor second to policymaking and politics.
Civil servants who manage government programs are judged by their ability to expand their departments, in terms of the number of employees and the size of their budgets. Most people who work in government are committed to their mission, so they naturally want their programs to grow bigger and do more. There is seldom much personal benefit, in pay or promotion, for a manager who delivers services at the same quality for lower cost. There are few thank-yous for simplifying websites or delivering faster, better service. Managers are actually penalized for being more efficient: If an agency saves money, its budget will most likely be reduced the following year.