Why governors put this over here, with the rest of the fire.

It’s happens at least once in every gubernatorial administration: presented with a disastrous, multi-year, failing software project that’s preventing an agency from accomplishing its mission, the governor awards a big contract to a big vendor, maybe even the vendor that’s the source of the problem. Some major culprits are unemployment insurance, enterprise resource planning, Medicaid, child welfare, and payroll—all load-bearing systems for their agencies. Solving these failures by signing another big contract nearly always makes things worse. So why do governors do this?

Serving as governor is to be presented with a never-ending stream of decisions to be made, all of which have been vetted through several layers of people. Those decisions are generally teed up to include options, in the form of a right option and a wrong option, with the governor’s advisors fervently hoping that their principal will simply make the “right” choice. There is rarely time for the governor to go deep in any area. A state is a stage full of spinning plates; the governor’s job is to go where directed and give a plate a quick push, and to repeat this many times each day, for 4–8 years.

Decision-making at this level is all about triaging. The easiest option is the preferred option. It’s better to dispose of a problem permanently than temporarily, better for a longer time than a shorter time. The top priority is to get things off the governor’s desk.

An animated GIF of a man carrying a flaming fire extinguisher cautiously. He's saying "I'll just put this over here, with the rest of the fire."
Maurice Moss, in “The IT Crowd,” triaging.

This imperative is embodied in the chief of staff, who spends the bulk of their time blocking for the governor, ensuring that questions only come to the governor when they are ripe for a decision, and that their principal has enough information to be able to make that decision.

So what should a governor do when faced with a failed software system that is preventing an agency from delivering on its mission? The correct response is to have the state take control from the vendor, because no vendor will ever care about the state’s mission as much as the state. They need to move to shorter contract periods, an Agile delivery cadence, agency product ownership, and root all work in user research. But you can’t tell that to a governor. Literally, you can’t—the chief of staff will hurl themselves in front of your body to stop you. Because what you’re saying to that governor is “what if, instead of making a single decision, we replaced this with a large amount of time-consuming work and a series of decisions over the course of months or years?” It’s completely contrary to the entire process used to operate governors’ offices.

What the governor is hearing from vendors, on the other hand, is very compelling. The incumbent vendor and their competitors are all saying the same thing: write us a big check and we’ll make all of your problems go away. Will they actually make all of those problems go away? Absolutely not. Will throwing more money on the money fire make the fire go away? No, that’s not how fire works. But this message from the vendor is exactly what the governor’s office is optimized for, and exactly what the agency secretary’s office is optimized for. They cannot escape the siren song of the vendors, and nobody warned them about the need for mast-lashing and beeswax.

Even if a governor knew that the problem would return with full fury in 6–12 months, with accompanying admonishing headlines and stern editorials, it’s entirely possible that they would still elect to award that big contract, simply because it makes the problem go away for 6–12 months. A lot can happen in 6–12 months! Maybe something more important will be in the news cycle then. Maybe they’ll be out of office. Maybe they’ll be less busy and will have time to really buckle down and pay attention to this UI / PFML / MMIS / childcare / whatever situation. But all of that is a problem for Future Them. Current Them has other stuff going on.

In short, governors make the worst decision because, in that moment, it feels like the safest decision, and it may even be the safest decision, although only in a political sense. Although the outcome is generally terrible, governors are behaving rationally. Without changing the incentives, they’ll keep throwing money on the money fires.

Published by Waldo Jaquith

Waldo Jaquith (JAKE-with) is an open government technologist who lives near Char­lottes­­ville, VA, USA. more »