Government spends a lot of money on software: $8.5 million is the price tag for Recovery.gov which is reasonable given what the Government is asking for. The White House Content Management System has a 16 Million contract on it. Or how about the 15 million dollars various agencies have spent this year on Sharepoint.
You may blame this on people saying "incompetent government bureaucrats are getting robbed by beltway bandits," but that's not usually the case. Now I'm certain there are incompetent people that work inside the government that are getting fleeced by contractors, but there are incompetent people everywhere getting fleeced by consultants. This isn't a problem of people: this is a problem of process. The real problem is one-size fits all regulations and procurement. Government asks for too much, in too short of time, and regulations require software to be too good at launch. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, perhaps a picture of the problem will better illustrate:
That's a flow chart of a procurement process. The end result of this process is expensive software that tries to do too much and none of it very well. If you want to keep your eye on the thing we have to change, print out this image, and hang it on your wall. Right now procurement is governed at a base by the Federal Acquisition Regulation, hundreds of pages on how government can procure just about anything. Non exhaustively, there's also the Clinger-Cohen Act of 1996 which delineates the responsibilities of CIOs and creates, legislatively, the Federal Enterprise Architecture. and, you've got to take a look at the Paperwork Reduction Act. That's a fairly big web. To truly understand why government spends so much money on software and where a lot of cost comes from, read these docs.
This is why things like Apps for America 2 are important-- see this isn't just about celebrating Data.gov but rather about creating a demonstration to the government. We're going to show Government a better way-- one model, outside of the current procurement process, that can work. This is the first time in history that government will be able to see what happens with a truly open process. Contests are one new model for procurement, but there are others, too.
So if you're a developer thinking that it is outrageous that Government is spending so much money on software, the best thing you can do is develop an entry into Apps for America 2. It is a way to shortcut the system, show the government what you can do and if you win, get in front of the right people. And if you don't, at the very least you've contributed to a body of evidence-- exhibit A if you will-- that will show Government what is possible.
P.S. If you're interested in a high resolution version of that chart, it is available in .ppt