A great piece by Alon again over at Pedestrian Observations, this time outlining how America’s hollowed out staffing transit authorities lead to high cost processes run by consultants. Transit is not the only part of government that operates this way.
The parallels are there in government software procurement. Few agencies have sufficient, well-paid, expert staff to build and maintain their own software systems. How many times do the same consultants need to fail before we recognize our process is broken? When it comes to big government software projects, if you don’t have the staff to build and maintain it yourself, you probably don’t have the staff to properly manage contractors building custom systems.
I think you have two options if you want to have successful projects: you either build it yourself, or you buy commercial-off-the-shelf products. That goes for software, but it also goes for infrastructure. How often are we finding American cities and regional transit authorities overpaying for lower quality rolling stock due to unnecessary customizations over off the shelf European train sets? The culture of pointless customizations at the margins is so strong, transit officials for Metro North in Connecticut didn’t know that federal regulations had change, permitting the purchase of unmodified rolling stock used in Europe.
Because of variations in state and local law, there are times you have to build things yourself. The team government has to do so should be as competent as private sector employees. They often are as individuals, but understaffed and underempowered to perform as well as a team. But so often, government spends orders of magnitude more on projects that fail in the interest of customizations performed by outside contractors that largely fail to deliver any meaningful improvement over unmodified, available systems.
Build the best yourself or buy the best from someone else. This in between crap just doesn’t work.