August 16, 2023
Akihiko Izu

Why Is Public Sector Software So Mediocre?

In an era in which technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace, why does public sector software remain miles behind modern standards?
Technology is advancing at an unprecedented pace so the underwhelming quality of software systems in the public sector remains a perplexing issue.

Whether you’re a US civilian trying to navigate one of the many terrible federal websites or a police officer in London struggling with New Scotland Yard’s new £150m IT system disaster, almost no one would describe the experience of government technology as “enjoyable.” Government agencies around the world are tasked with handling critical functions that impact citizens' lives, yet their software solutions often fall well short of meeting the modern standards set by dynamic companies like Apple and Google. In fact, the legacy federal IT systems in the US cost $61 billion simply to operate and maintain in 2015 according to one government report1. This raises the question: Why is public sector software so mediocre?

1. Procurement Inefficiencies:

One of the primary reasons for subpar public sector software is the bureaucratic nature of its public sector procurement. This process for software projects is often lengthy and convoluted due to the need to adhere to strict regulations. This means that when the new software is finally deployed, the technology chosen is often already out of date thanks to the rapid evolution of the private sector tech industry. Fortunately, cutting-edge cloud-based solutions, such as the Multitude Insights BLTN platform for public safety agencies, can shorten deployment times considerably.

Additionally, public sector procurement processes will often prioritize cost savings over quality. Cheaper solutions will save taxpayer dollars in the short-term but may come with costly limitations that hinder functionality and user experience in the long term. This can contribute to heavy public sector overtime expenditure. The focus on short-term cost containment often prevents the public sector from investing in cutting-edge technologies that significantly improve efficiency.

2. Legal Concerns:

The public sector is subject to numerous regulations and compliance standards that don't necessarily apply to the private sector. This can complicate software development efforts because developers must ensure that applications meet specific legal requirements. These complexities can lead to rigid and convoluted software architectures that hinder adaptability and innovation.

Moreover, the public sector handles vast amounts of sensitive and confidential data. Data leaks can be disastrous when they do occur, as recently seen in Northern Ireland, so security is of paramount importance. However, the stringent security measures put in place to safeguard data can often impede the development process. Stringent security protocols can slow down development, limit integrations with third-party tools, and introduce complexities that hamper usability.

3. Lack of User-Centricity:

A user-centric design is the hallmark of successful software applications. Unfortunately, public sector software frequently falls short in this regard. Research shows that many law enforcement applications, for instance, fail short of basic user-friendly standards. Complex and unintuitive user interfaces can frustrate users and lead to suboptimal adoption rates. When building their own software, government organizations often lack the user feedback loops and user testing that private sector companies frequently prioritize.

4. Risk Aversion and Fear of Failure:

The public sector operates under a heightened level of scrutiny and accountability. This can lead to risk aversion and a fear of failure among government officials and decision-makers. As a result, many public sector software projects tend to prioritize stability and predictability over innovation. While stability is important, a complete aversion to risk can stifle creativity and prevent the adoption of emerging technologies that have the potential to revolutionize workflows.

To address this, a shift in mindset is required. Embracing a culture that acknowledges the value of experimentation, even if it involves occasional failures, can lead to breakthroughs in public sector software development. Encouraging an environment where lessons learned from failures are valued and used to inform future projects can contribute to more innovative and effective solutions.

The mediocrity of public sector software can be attributed to a combination of bureaucratic hurdles, complex regulations and security concerns, the lack of user-centric design, and risk aversion from decision makers. Addressing these issues requires a concerted effort to modernize procurement processes, simplify regulations (without compromising security), prioritize user experience, and foster a culture that embraces innovation and learning from failures. By working with companies like Multitude Insights, where  we’re leveraging the latest software innovations, government agencies can elevate the quality of their systems and better serve their citizens in our digital age.

1. David Hinchman (2021).”TECHNOLOGY MODERNIZATION FUND: Implementation of Recommendations Can Improve Fee Collection and Proposal Cost Estimates.” GAO@100. December 2021.

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