How do we stop another Iowa tech nightmare? The answers are hiding in plain sight.
From the moment I saw the first headline blaming the Iowa caucus reporting delay on a smartphone app, I knew what was coming: garbled, contradictory bug reports from the field. Social media jammed with toxic false rumors and deliberate spin bordering on disinformation. News stories sourced from anonymous quotes that are more about score settling than anything that happened in Iowa. And by the next day, a mailbox full of questions from journalists with a familiar refrain: from healthcare.gov to the latest debacle, why does this keep happening?
There are answers. In fact, they are well known in some circles. Most importantly, the government and political arenas share two harmful cultural attitudes that contribute to repeated, avoidable failures.
The greatest cultural problem was on display this week. When things start to go wrong, everyone from the Twittersphere to reporters scramble to find and blame a single cause: one mistake; one vendor; one individual. This is both tactically useless in the moment and strategically self-destructive in the long run.
In reality, when a system as complicated as the Iowa caucus breaks down, it is the product of multiple minor failures, incidents, and unexpected behaviors. Fixing it is like assembling a jigsaw puzzle where 300 people each hold one piece. It is impossible to address when everyone knows that whoever is found holding the “worst” piece is going to become a scapegoat for the entire picture. This is why, in government and politics, big failures are almost never followed by big fixes.
Poor failure management has long-term corrosive effects as well. Simple survivor bias means that leaders at too many of our most important institutions are people that, having experienced failure, have learned only one lesson, which is to dodge accountability. After Iowa, as in past incidents, the individuals who just learned much more meaningful (and expensive) lessons about how to build reliable technology will leave and take their knowledge with them.
Other, more successful industries hold “blameless problem resolution” as a core value. Aviation did not get safe enough for commercial air travel until regulators and the industry learned to stop writing down “pilot error” as the root cause of every crash. Thomas Watson, former chairman of IBM, once famously said: “I was asked if I was going to fire an employee who made a mistake that cost the company $600,000. No, I replied, I just spent $600,000 training him.”
A second problem endemic to government and politics is that our large institutions do not understand that their core missions now depend on “new” technology. If you spend time with the leaders of old, large institutions, you will discover that many of them think of the tech industry in 1980s stereotypes, of nerds that live in the basement and can be paid in pizza and Mountain Dew. Worse, thanks to the overwrought hero stories of 2008 and 2012, progressive politics has an entrenched belief that all we will ever need, tech-wise, is a couple of plucky volunteers to work miracles from their garage for a few weeks. Convenient stereotypes feed leaders’ natural fear of change and desire to maintain control, and the result is that critical decisions about schedule, scope, and budget for large tech projects are often made with no input from technical experts.
There is a third factor that is particularly relevant in politics on the Democratic side, which stems from a belief that good technology comes from lone prodigies. Unlike the Republicans, the Democratic establishment has no sustainable, built-to-last technical infrastructure that receives reliable support from donors or party leaders. Instead, we put misplaced faith in “the market” solving our infrastructure needs, in the form of myriad shoestring operations competing for tiny venture-capital-style “seed grants” and contracts from PACs and campaigns. The money that flows to tech firms is a tiny fraction of political spending, and it dries to nothing in the off-season. The Clinton campaign hired a team of dozens to curate data and build technology. Nearly all of them have left politics, taking their knowledge and expertise with them. The same was true for most of the entrepreneurs who, motivated by Trump’s election, stepped into the ring in 2017.
The real priority is in plain sight. Multiple organizations have announced plans to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on ad campaigns to fight Trump in 2020. Contrast that with the $60,000 budget and two-month timeline for an app to execute what may be the most critical primary of the season.
Eventually, the media will likely conclude that the Iowa situation was a “perfect storm” of uniquely incompetent people and unforeseeable, one-off anomalies. The truth is that these storms are a product of the climate we have constructed for ourselves. Until we change it, spectacular civic tech flops will remain perfectly normal.