The “government is so inefficient” shibboleth

Amongst self-identfied conservative and fans of what they term “small government”, it is almost an article of faith that the private sector is more efficient than the government.
(ASIDE – there is a good reason why I used air quotes in the above sentence, since I long ago noticed that many self-confessed fans of “small government” are only fans of that idea when they come across the government spending money on Stuff They Do Not Approve Of, otherwise they are perfectly OK with governments spending money. Lots of money).
One of the classic ways in which people instinctively opposed to government try to bolster their arguments is by pointing to the ineffiencies and waste that occur in IT projects within government. If they are better-informed, they usually throw in one or two notorious examples of pas failures that made it into the public domain.
There is only one problem with the argument.
The private sector is just as inefficient at IT solution delivery. In fact, based on my being involved with both the government and public corporations over the last 38 years, I can state anecdotally that waste, inefficiency, duplication, bungling, cost overruns and out of control projects are just as common in corporate IT. Some of the worst and most expensive failures that sort of made it into the public domain (such as the Confirm travel industry program), consumed hundreds of millions of dollars for next to no result or value.
There is, however, one big difference. Failures in corporations are more often and easily swept under the carpet or into a box marked “amnesia”. I have seen multiple instances of failed delivery programs being carefully spun as successes, “re-scoped”, or subjected to any one of a number of soothing outbreaks of corporate Doublespeak, in order to pretend that the whole damn thing never really happened.
In the case of government, especially at the state and federal level here in the USA, that tends to be less easy to manage, since elected representatives like nothing more than to rake government officials and leaders over the coals in public about a waste of taxpayer’s money. It is a form of ritualistic blood sport, allowing said elected representatives to preen, strut and intimidate in front of the media, as they engage in virtue signaling to their electorates that they are Relentless Stewards of The Public Purse.
Whether those public ritualistic floggings actually yield any positive results is doubtful. Excoriating in public is never a positive motivational strategy; it is about one half step removed from the old saying “the beatings will continue until morale improves”.
The underlying point here, however, is that when people complain about “waste” in government IT, they are conveniently overlooking that the levels of waste are just as bad in the private sector. The truth is that the issues with large-scale IT delivery are many and difficult to solve, no matter where the projects are being executed. Software development and delivery as an activity stream just does not scale well.


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