How to make government IT simpler

Many people talk about simpler government IT but why doesn’t it happen? It’s because keeping things simple is one of the hardest things you can do, especially in an organisation that’s not wired for that kind of thinking. This is compounded when you’re dealing with suppliers that are also kitchen-sink thinkers. In general suppliers think that they can get more business and make more money by providing more stuff. Usually they’re right because most customers see the supposed advantages more than the costs of overblown software and systems.

“What’s so hard about being simple?” could easy fill a book but there are a few common factors:

  • People don’t realise that when you add something you take something away. Your increase in literal functionality gets traded off against clarity, ease of use, ease of learning and user satisfaction.
  • People find it hard to make decisions. Tell your children that they can have 30 Christmas presents and they’ll happily start writing lists. Tell them that they can have only one — within reason, anything — and they’ll probably hate you forever. It’s so much easier to throw in the kitchen sink than think through what you really need.
  • You can’t predict the future. Trying to anticipate hypothetical future needs is a great way to buy a ton of junk that you don’t need now and won’t ever need. But if your procurement process is lengthy and cumbersome and you’re going to have to live with a new system for several years it’s tempting to grab everything you can because you know you won’t have a chance to do it later.

For corporate IT I’d recommend:

  • Start small. Purchase or build the minimum system you need to meet your current needs and build it up from there when necessary and not before.
  • Choose or build modular systems that can be extended when necessary rather than having to throw out the whole system and trade up.
  • Use systems that can talk to each other. Follow the Unix philosophy of systems that do one thing well and can easily be combined with other systems to produce toolchains and capabilities that are much greater than the sum of their parts.
  • Streamline procurement. Build in preferences for small systems and short-term contracts. Try to make it as cheap as possible to change your mind and to trade up when future needs change rather than forcing people to stick with systems that no longer suit them.
  • Hire some good developers (Hi!). Many useful small systems can be quickly and cheaply built in-house in far less time and for far less money than buying a commercial product. When that system needs a small change you can quickly and cheaply just make it rather than being at the mercy of an external supplier to do it. They could take months or they might not be interested in doing it at all.

This post started life as a comment at We Love Local Government.

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