VanRoekel offers silver lining in HealthCare.gov debacle

Wednesday - 10/30/2013, 4:29am EDT

Jason Miller on the Federal Drive.

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WILLIAMSBURG, Va.--The Obama administration's initial roll out of HealthCare.gov exemplified many of the long-standing problems with federal technology and procurement. But a senior White House official is trying to paint a silver lining around the fiasco.

Federal Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel said, like many other federal IT and acquisition breakdowns, there is a teachable moment that could, in the long term, make the government better.

"It's where those things that I've been preaching, that many of you carry forward into the federal sphere have been preaching around the necessity to change, the necessity to evolve were sort of realized in some ways and not in others," VanRoekel said during the Executive Leadership Conference sponsored by ACT-IAC Tuesday.

He said HealthCare.gov has to teach the federal IT community to look at projects differently and strive for continuous improvements.

"The overarching themes of federal IT that I've been talking about for the last few years have been a lot about how do you build systems that are more modular, that lower the risk surface, that engage new technologies and things like that," VanRoekel said. "There are aspects of government that makes it hard to move at the speed in which you'd like to move, procurement, and the way we implement technology. We need to look at those things in this context as a teachable moment and think about how we can continue to evolve and drive these systems forward."

Government's boldness

He added he would work with the Office of Federal Procurement Policy on ways to improve federal IT procurement, but offered no specific ideas or areas of focus.

This is his first public comment by any senior technology official since the site launched with a lot of problems on Oct. 1. In fact before Tuesday, VanRoekel hadn't spoken publicly in seven months as he was the acting deputy director for management at the Office of Management and Budget. The Senate confirmed Beth Cobert to be DDM last week.

VanRoekel also offered few details about OMB's role in oversight or the actual problems or solutions, instead referring all questions to the Department of Health and Human Services.

House Oversight and Government Reform Committee Chairman Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) asked VanRoekel and federal Chief Technology Officer Todd Park for information and a briefing last week on their oversight over the HealthCare.gov portal. Issa gave the White House until Oct. 28 to schedule a briefing about OMB's oversight role. An email to the committee asking if OMB met the Oct. 28 deadline was not answered.

VanRoekel said HealthCare.gov — even with all its warts — is an example of the government's boldness.

"We should all be proud of the fact that something this complex, this integrated to legacy systems — and there are mainframes out there that this thing hooks to — was done at Internet scale and take online in this way," he said. "Just the fact that we have transactions moving between agencies using open data, using modular development, using technology in a way that moves from a 19th and 20th century government paper approach to an online approach is something we all should be proud of in the federal IT community. And thinking about that boldness is key to where we go forward."

While VanRoekel offered no details on how the Department of Health and Human Services is fixing the site, the agency posted a blog update Tuesday on progress in fixing HealthCare.gov.

Version 1.0 often struggles

It said the portal can process nearly 17,000 account registrants per hour — or five per second — with an error rate near zero.

Among the fixes HHS made recently are replacing a virtual database with a high- capacity physical one, which allows more efficient, effective processing and significantly reduced the error rate, or account registration failures, optimizing software configurations to increase efficiency in system interactions and adding capacity by doubling the number of servers.

HHS also said it pushed through a patch release with four software fixes to address users that were having a hard time logging in to their accounts.

VanRoekel said a complex website like HealthCare.gov will have problems, especially in version 1.0.

"My many, almost two decades at Microsoft, I shipped products that had similar issues. I had to recall a product once that I sold into the partner community, but not through to the customer yet," he said. "But it was a lesson learned for me on what we needed to do to get the technology right at the end of the day. So even in large multinational companies this stuff happens, and I think the key there is what you take from this. Is this a teachable moment? Are you learning? Are you taking that learning and focusing on some key stuff?"