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Not just stimulus payments: Why the U.S. government has so much trouble going digital
Billions of dollars have been lost on custom government IT projects that were eventually canceled.
- Coronavirus stimulus check delays, digital voting stagnation, and the Obamacare registration website are just three recent examples of the government's rocky track record with technology.
- Between 2003 and 2013, $9.2 billion was lost on custom government IT projects that were eventually canceled because they didn't work.
- Government agencies are contending with outdated systems, laggardly know-how, low budgets, and a significant talent gap, among other challenges.
Across the U.S., millions of people are still waiting for government coronavirus stimulus checks, frustrated by the technological glitches that rendered the IRS unable to recognize their personal details. Unfortunately, this isn't unusual when it comes to government projects – the federal government has been struggling for years to master the technology it needs to power advanced, complex actions.
To give one massive example, the Obamacare Health.gov website opened late, overran its budget by close to $800 million, functioned so poorly that only six people in the country were able to select coverage on launch day, and finally crashed for several days because it lacked capacity for the number of users. It was an event which should have been foreseen.
Online voting is being considered with more urgency at a time when the novel coronavirus makes it unsafe for millions to vote in person. Yet while some states and counties offer online voting, others are not even at the pilot stage. The issues with the Iowa state caucus app, which meant that the first, still-confused results weren't announced until a good 24 hours after voting concluded, is a recent cautionary tale. While this was a problem with just one party's app in one state, it shows the damage that can be done when election tech goes wrong.
These are just a few especially prominent examples in a long list of past failures. Between 2003 and 2013, some $9.2 billion was lost on custom government IT projects that were eventually canceled because they didn't work.
It begs the question of why federal digital projects so often fail to deliver.
There’s no digital transformation in government
From Deloitte's Journey to Government's Digital Transformation report
A recent McKinsey report points out that the US government still hasn't undergone any sort of proper digital transformation. "Overall, US government entities trail organizations in other sectors in adopting digital technologies and approaches," the report concludes.
For example, the current IRS system uses COBOL, a coding language which hasn't been in wide use in a decade. It's a similar issue for unemployment benefits, which are federally run but managed on a state level. The New Jersey state government is seeking people proficient in outdated computer languages to help update the system to cope with the massive numbers registering as unemployed.
Government bodies are suspicious of proposals to switch or upgrade digital tools and processes, creating a growing mass of legacy systems which are inefficient to use and expensive to maintain. Between 2010 and 2017, over $440 billion, or 77 percent of the budget, went on operations and maintenance for legacy systems, leaving less money for modernizing or replacing systems. This is what's known in the industry as "technical debt."
Alongside these legacy processes lies a highly risk-averse culture which is opposed to the continuous innovation (CI) and agile "fail fast, fail quickly" mindset necessary for successful digital projects.
Although opposition to digital transformation runs deep, change can be worth it. The United States Social Security Administration (SSA) switched from a traditional waterfall approach to agile development to improve its IT modernization program, which had overrun both budget and timeline and caused user complaints. After the switch, the SSA saved 66 percent on the cost of the program, and exceeded user expectations.
Lack of strategic leadership
A lack of clear digital strategy is one of the primary reasons why digital projects flounder in uncertainty. Unfortunately, government agency heads are rarely masters of digital tech. They often lack the vision and understanding needed to build a clear digital strategy, which isn't high on their list of priorities.
In many cases, multiple departments are responsible for different sections of consumer journey, which means that user experience is frequently altered in a piecemeal way, without any grasp of the bigger picture.
What's more, when there's no single person in charge of the project, confusing and sometimes conflicting instructions are passed down to those carrying it out. This dogged the Health.gov project. Conflict between staff at the White House and those at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) caused the project leadership to be fragmented, which no one acknowledged until it was too late.
From Deloitte's Journey to Government's Digital Transformation report
The size of the government's administrative system creates organizational barriers to completing large digital projects. Public sector projects have to jump through hoops of compliance that are intended to prevent fraud, but have the effect of slowing down development and design and enforcing traditional "waterfall" workflows at a time when successful digital projects are increasingly agile.
It's no surprise that rules and regulations are the most significant obstacle to better procurement practices.
The problem is compounded by frequent conflict between federal and state agencies. In the case of the Obamacare registration site, a number of states initially refused to join and considered building their own versions, which slowed the project down even further.
Large projects, small budgets
Digital projects are increasingly complex, but budgets aren't expanding, especially during a corona-induced economic slowdown.
While this is true across the board, federal projects tend to be larger, have a more diverse range of users, and don't have the funding or workforce needed to meet their goals.
This spring, the IRS is expected to supply stimulus payments to hundreds of millions of people across the country, but it has only 76,000 employees, compared with 99,500 in 2010. Since 2011, there have been multiple IRS budget cuts, and dozens of experts in the IT department have left without being replaced.
The talent gap
It's impossible to ignore the impact of the talent gap on federal digital projects. The most talented developers, project managers, and UI/UX experts flow to the private sector, which offers higher pay as well as the "sex appeal" of working on the cutting edge that attracts the most passionate workers.
It doesn't help that senior government officials are rarely either digital natives or digitally comfortable. Because they're not familiar with best practices for digital projects, they also often don't always know what to look for in the hiring process.
It's the same story for vendors. Out of a lack of training and experience, the agencies procuring contractors don't always make the best choices. When the project comes to grief, agencies have to change contractors, adding to the money and time costs.
Digital transformation is the only solution
The list of federal technology-based projects that failed to deliver is long and getting longer, a clear sign of the desperate need for federal digital transformation.
It will require a lot of money, time, and effort (just like every digital transformation), but unless we make this move, the U.S. government will continue to lack strategic leadership, widen the talent gap, erect organizational barriers, and generally struggle to deal with projects that are far too large for their restricted budgets to cope with.
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Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.