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Tech industry leaders dissect botched Healthcare.gov launch

Kenneth Corbin | Nov. 20, 2013
Senior technology industry executives from Adobe, VMware and others diagnose the problems in troubled Healthcare.gov, citing the ambitious scope of the project and endemic flaws in broader government contracting apparatus.

The CIO of the federal government recently referred to thebotched rollout of the federal health care website as a "teachable moment." But what was the lesson?

In a panel discussion on Capitol Hill yesterday, senior tech executives from the private sector diagnosed what they considered a top-to-bottom failure in the planning and execution of Healthcare.gov, beginning with the ambitious scope of the project.

"I don't think there's a lesson here that we haven't already learned more than once," said Doug Bourgeois, vice president of solutions and services with VMware's U.S. public sector division. "The big bang approach never worked, and yet here we are again with the big bang approach."

Iterate to Success

Bourgeois and other panelists advised federal IT leaders to adopt a more iterative development model for future technology projects, as has become commonplace in industry.

John Landwehr, vice president of digital government solutions at Adobe, recalled a time when the software vendor worked on a long-term release schedule, like a complete overhaul of Photoshop that could take a year-and-a-half of development or longer.

"We used to do big releases," Landwehr said, but over time the company moved away from that approach and now pushes out more minor product updates more frequently.

But the problems identified with the rollout of the federal health care website go well beyond the initial scoping of the project, the panelists argued.

The procurement process that the Department of Health and Human Services oversaw, by contracting with numerous private-sector firms, also gave the project little chance of succeeding, according to Mark Forman, founder of Government Transaction Services, a firm that provides tools for federal contractors, and the former administrator for e-government at the Office of Management and Budget.

Making a Mockery of Modular

"They made a mockery of modular procurement," Forman said. "Modular procurement means you should be able to buy the pieces easily, fast and they should fit together. Fifty-five pieces from different vendors do not fit together."

Panelists also described the cultural and organizational issues in the federal government that can derail large-scale IT deployments. They stressed that the technology aspects of the launch, daunting as they were, were compounded by the too-common failure of federal project managers to communicate effectively with their commercial suppliers or their colleagues in other segments of the department or agency. That could mean ignoring warning signs about glitches in a website, or rebuffing suggestions by the vendor to take an alternative development approach.

"There's multiple layers of the challenge. Some are architectural, meaning there could have been a different technological approach to providing an integration framework for tying the information together and ensuring that it was going to perform. There is [also] a project-management practice approach," Bourgeois said.

 

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