Why states have a problem with tech

One among several reasons is a lack of transparency

DURING THE PANDEMIC we have seen illness in state government technology, and we wonder why the state that has the world’s finest computer science programs; that has local offices for Facebook, Google, and Amazon; and that had the ingenuity to develop the Moderna vaccine, cannot solve our government’s technology problems. We somehow cannot even provide websites that make it easy to get that vaccine. Why?

Surprisingly, there is no simple cure for this problem, which plagues all state governments. But there are things we can do.

First, anyone who claims that all we have to do is “marshal our great technology resources and solve these problems” does not understand what is wrong, and will not be able to find the policy solutions. All state governments are at least 10 years into the struggle to solve persistent technology problems. There are books on “civic tech,” there are conferences, there are volunteer organizations, and there are many online resources for best practices. Cloud vendors like Google and Amazon now have powerful services that can handle nearly all of government’s regulatory requirements. Yet, despite all that, we have seen that several states have had problems with their vaccine sites.

The biggest problem that state government faces is great difficulty in getting highly-skilled software developers to work there, where they will make a lot less money, enjoy fewer perks, and have a lower chance of success on the projects they work on. Salary ranges have been increased, but not nearly enough.

The other problem is that most IT work commissioned by state government is done by outside vendors who do not always do good work. Unfortunately, the large IT vendors who sell services to government do not have the right incentives. They want large, long-term contracts with as many people on them as possible, even though project risk increases with size. They generally get paid whether or not the project is succeeding. They use the cheapest labor possible. They often fail on quality and budget. They keep getting hired because there are very few firms that have the staffing and skills to work on the kinds of large applications state government needs.

Our government IT managers have learned this. They have re-worked contracts, they have tried to break down the work into smaller pieces, and they have tried to find smaller vendors who will focus more on quality, as a way out of the disasters they have seen. In fact, the Baker administration’s use of the small and relatively new vendor PrepMod for the vaccination site was surely part of that ongoing strategy. Yet even PrepMod, which licensed its software to other states as well, couldn’t get it exactly right, either. (But at least during the Day of Orange Octopuses all available appointments were booked.) However, PrepMod probably did better than some huge IT vendor would have.

I do not believe the poor experience of PrepMod represents how well the effort is going to improve vendor management. Other projects, such as the complete overhaul of the main state government website at mass.gov a few years ago, have fared much better. In fact, throughout the pandemic, mass.gov provided comprehensive, easy-to-digest information about COVID-19 and what the state was doing. It has been a daily state government technology success.

As proof that even the most problematic applications can improve with enough effort and better management, a recent success story is the long-awaited new version of MassTaxConnect, one of the largest and most important pieces of software our government has. It manages all kinds of taxation transactions. As of last year, it was so hard to use that it took me 10 minutes of clicking and struggling to just make a simple installment payment for my state income taxes. But thanks to the new version launched just weeks ago, it is now far easier to use and has numerous improvements.

What would also help the quality of technology is far more transparency, and more than our government would be comfortable with. For instance, I found the recent testimony of PrepMod Executive Director Tiffany Tate at a February 25 legislative hearing to be evasive and vague. I expected to learn the technical explanation for the vaccination website’s problems. I did not find out.

We must have transparency around projects. There is just too much spending and too many people depend on these systems working for us to find out when they launch that there are problems. The basic architecture of major government IT systems should be posted online for the public to see. It is absolutely possible to do this at a useful level of detail without compromising security. Rather than explain how that is possible as a technical matter, let me use an analogy. If Coca-Cola can post the nutrition information and basic ingredients on the back of a soda can and still protect their “secret recipe,” then my government can describe the architecture of large projects so outside experts can comment on them.

If I were the technical lead for a crucial vaccination site, you had better believe I would have shopped my plans and configuration with a dozen other experts I know. We need that kind of review for public projects. Also, the pressure of a public release of architectural plans would probably incentivize people to do a better job. As always, sunlight is the best disinfectant.

Another problem in state government IT is balkanization and lack of consistent standards. Gov. Charlie Baker did reorganize the state’s IT organization and give it more oversight power a few years ago, but the other statewide officeholders are free to do their own thing. This makes no sense and should be changed via legislation.

Look at the websites for Secretary William Galvin and for Treasurer Deborah Goldberg, which are somehow separate from the main state website (mass.gov). Galvin runs a technical operations backwater so problematic that the members of the Supreme Judicial Court used some of the strongest language I have ever heard from them to criticize his office’s technology. I wrote an essay detailing the kinds of problems his software had at that time, which still does not meet modern standards.  Fixing the most significant problems in his office will not require the best technology or brightest minds, just a lot of elbow grease. For example, if he moved his web content to mass.gov, as Attorney General Healey and State Auditor Bump have, many of his problems would be solved quickly.

This disconnected landscape could get much more perilous. Treasurer Goldberg has been pushing to move our state lottery online, which will probably happen. Who would get the funding for that? I predict it would go to her office. Would Goldberg’s tech people manage that? Or the tech people at the Executive Office of Technology Services under Baker? What vendors might be used? There would need to be highly-skeptical oversight of such a huge, risky, and important project.

So we need more than one tactic to improve state government technology. We need more transparency everywhere to expose problems earlier and get outside opinions from technology experts. We need to raise salaries for government employees in technology and project management. We must get all of state government technology under one set of technical standards and one oversight organization. We need to keep cultivating better, smaller vendors, and continue improving how we manage them. We also need more press coverage on the projects. (The media didn’t notice MassTaxConnect finally got a major upgrade.)

Meet the Author

Ed Lyons

Political writer and Republican activist
Technology is central to the health of all of state government services. We cannot allow it to be a comorbidity that prevents the state from effectively serving the people of Massachusetts. We must do better.

Ed Lyons is a computer scientist and political writer. He was a member of Gov. Charlie Baker’s policy transition team in December 2014 to provide advice on technology issues. He has not worked for the governor or state government in any capacity since that time.