Check that; to judge by his Twitter feed, he said a whole lot of dumb stuff about technology in Monday’s Innovation Week debate in Burlington. But this time, we’re focusing in on one particularly dumb and potentially dangerous item. This was in response to a question about how the state should select and integrate new software.
Scott said the state should opt for more off-the-shelf technology instead of buying custom-made programs. When his excavation firm needed a new bookkeeping program, he was told it would cost $10,000 to $15,000. Instead, the company chose a $200 QuickBooks program, he said.
Hey, yeah! Maybe we could replace the Tax Department with TurboTax! We could shut down Vermont Health Connect and refer everybody to WebMD! That’s the stuff!
Now, I’m not a technology expert, not by a longshot. But even I can see major flaws in Scott’s simplistic prescription. In no particular order:
— For many government functions, there are no private-sector comparables. If the Secretary of State needs new elections IT, he won’t find anything remotely applicable at Software Hut. Same with human services or health care or the judiciary or police or natural resources or you name it.
— IT is a lot more complicated in the public sector. There are interactions with other state agencies as well as local and federal government, for one thing. There’s a reason that Human Services and health care have been so trouble-plagued; they’re really, really difficult.
— As a result, most software vendors don’t bother with the public sector marketplace because it’s too specialized and too complicated. When the Shumlin administration sought vendors for the Vermont Health Connect website, there were very few bids — and only one that was remotely qualified. Yes, CGI, which had contracted with the feds and several other states.
— Crashes and security breaches are not uncommon in the private sector, but they’re usually one-day stories quickly covered up with cash settlements and software upgrades. In the public sector, software problems can turn into huge scandals. (Just ask CGI.) Honestly, if I were in the software business, why in Hell would I ever bid on a major state IT project?
— In the private sector, dissatisfied customers can take their business elsewhere. In the public sector, disaffected customers are also known as “voters.” Government agencies have to strive for 100 percent performance. Businesses, dirty little unsecret, strive to keep customer unhappiness to manageable levels, not eliminate it.
If anything, I’m understating the difficulties involved. And to be fair, I’m sure Phil Scott isn’t seriously proposing that we solve our IT difficulties with a trip to Software Hut. But to even suggest the comparison reveals an ignorance of the challenges we face in public sector information technology.