Healthcare.gov problems spark federal IT recriminations

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Problems with healthcare.gov, the federal website for residents of 36 states whose governments declined to build their own healthcare exchanges, have set off a round of recriminations against federal information technology management and acquisition.

The New York Times, in a Oct. 12 article, says that regulations underpinning healthcare.gov were delayed for political reasons until after the November 2012 election and technical specifications were also slow in coming, meaning that the website's largest contractor, CGI Federal, didn't start writing code until this spring. The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services also took on itself the role of system integrator, although some doubted it had the technical capacity to take on that task.

Systemic problems, such as lack of technical expertise, are the stuff of much debate over what went wrong.

"Many agencies are stuck in a technology time warp that affects how projects like the healthcare exchange portal are built," writes Ars Technica's Sean Gallagher, expressing a common opinion that cites as fundamental causes long procurement cycles, slow adoption of new technologies and the problem of a large installed base. Gallagher also notes turnover among top executives, each of whom brings "some marquee project to burnish their résumés," meaning that real change is difficult to implement.

Agencies also measure the wrong things, he says, pointing to IT Dashboard metrics of healthcare.gov, which based on Health and Human Services Department self-evaluation, performed at peak rates in the lead up to the Oct. 1 unveiling of the website. Among the things HHS measured was "percent of system availability during normal business hours," measured per quarter, "before the site was even online to the public."

Good government technology gadfly Clay Johnson assigns great weight to the procurement process in his post-mortem. Government acquisition "leans towards a write-down-all-the-requirements-then-build-to-those-requirements type of methodology."

Federal officials generally have "no idea how much stuff should cost," and agencies don't share company bid pricing data. Johnson acknowledges that companies see their pricing data as confidential, but says there's no reason why it shouldn't be shared internally within the federal government.

Military open source software advocate John Scott, writing on his blog, also faults the acquisition process, but concentrates more on what he says is a lack of technological skills within government. Scott, who has libertarian tendencies, says anybody working in a large bureaucracy is likely to have their technical skills degrade over time and that bureaucracies drive away smart and innovative technologists except for in isolated pockets of excellence, such as cryptography in the National Security Agency.

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