The recent debacle at the Iowa caucuses is just the latest example of recent technology blunders that highlights the need for more tech-savvy leadership in our government entities. It’s still not quite clear what happened in Iowa, other than the fact that days later, there are still no final results.
The Iowa Caucus App Failure
Early indications point to an app that was built to collect voter caucus results but remained inaccessible to many of the caucus participants. Evidence suggests that the app's inability to scale is to blame. This is surprising considering the relatively small number of transactions required to handle the number of democratic caucus participants in Iowa*. What's more, it seems there was no contingency plan in the event of a system failure. Iowa’s app failure is just the latest in a list of government technical blunders in the past few years. Let’s explore a few others.
Recent Government Technology Failures
It was just a couple of years ago when US Senators probing Mark Zuckerburg were stumped as to how Facebook made its money. Facebook is one of the largest companies in America (valued at over a half-trillion dollars) and like Google, makes much of its revenue through advertising. Yet the Senators in charge of potentially passing laws to regulate Facebook data collection and protecting US citizen’s privacy didn’t go into the meeting with this most fundamental understanding of how this juggernaut sustains its business.
It has been several years, but how can anyone forget the colossal mismanagement and failure of the initial Healthcare.gov rollout in 2013? Just weeks prior to launch, President Barack Obama himself assured the country that the platform was ready and would launch on time. It did come out on time, but it was far from ready and was plagued by outages and an inability to scale despite costing taxpayers $1.7 billion — an absurd amount for a relatively straightforward system. Consider that the initial systems for Twitter, Facebook, Uber, and Instagram were all built for under $1 million dollars each. This is an example of not only technical failure in execution but the sheer incompetence in government ability to source vendors.
In 2018, a gunman entered Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, killing 17 people and injuring 17 others. This tragedy happened despite the fact that there were 23 calls, reports, and complaints made to the FBI, the Broward County Sheriff’s Office, and local police departments in the months and weeks leading up to the incident — all indicating that Nikolas Cruz was a severe threat. He even posted on YouTube that he wanted to be a “professional school shooter.” Where is the technical breakdown here? My sense is that each complaint was treated as an individual incident, and so the threat was viewed as minimal. If there had been a central database or some kind of shared system, someone could have seen that there were actually 23 related complaints about Cruz, revealing a much more severe threat and inciting action to prevent the occurrence. The Parkland Florida shooting was as much a failure in technology competence among law enforcement, as it was of anything. We have seen this same pattern of not connecting the dots due to the lack of integrated systems with respect to poor information sharing within and among the intelligence agencies prior to 9/11.
The Boeing Max Jet 737 initial FAA certification, and later the response by FAA was a failure by the regulators to understand the plane’s software systems. Reports are that the FAA was unable to adequately assess the Max’s flight control system. After the incidents began, it was clear that the issue was a software problem that was extremely problematic, and also would not be fixed in a short time. Instead, while much of the rest of the world had decided to ground the plane, the FAA delayed grounding the plane putting more people at risk. Even after being grounded after the second crash in March 2019, the FAA reported Boeing would soon have a fix. Well, it has been about 11 months so far. Why has it taken so long? Software systems are complex and, and it takes time to debug and test properly especially when lives are at stake.
In another 2018 incident, a pedestrian was killed by a self-driving Uber car. Anyone that truly understands software systems would know that self-driving car technology is not ready for prime time. Yet in Arizona and other municipalities around the country, politicians are green-lighting these autonomous test vehicle programs and putting innocent civilians in jeopardy. It is easy for political leaders that don’t understand software and technology to be easily misled by others particularly when jobs, dollars, and/or votes are on the other side of their ignorant choices.
Many Technology Challenges Ahead won't make it any Easier for Government Leaders
In 2000, Marc Andreesen famously said that “Software is Eating the World.” Well, it’s 2020, and the world has been eaten by software. Our political leaders will need to be able to adapt and lead a world that, increasingly, is being challenged by cyber terrorists, privacy issues, artificial intelligence, job loss due to automation, self-driving cars, facial recognition, and a move to cryptocurrencies. Even climate change is more likely to be tackled by a technological development than a treaty or policy.
The technical challenges are all around us and we need leaders that are able to understand and navigate the complexities — the ability to Tweet alone isn't enough.
*In 2016, approximately 187,000 people total voted in the Iowa Caucuses. That was a record number compared to the projected 2020 turnout. Robust software platforms should be able to handle this amount of transactions in a few seconds.
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