Where were all the techies for the launch of HealthCare.gov?

Monday - 10/21/2013, 1:36pm EDT

Commentary By Tom Temin
Co-Host, Federal Drive
Federal News Radio

I hope the model smiling happily from the home page of HealthCare.gov changes her hair-do. This 21st century Betty Crocker may have a lot of trouble out in public from people with complaints about the main federal health care exchange site.

Through the run-up to and the duration of the partial federal government shutdown, the technology front has been active. And, by far, the dominant story is the dismal launch of HealthCare.gov.

Whether you think the Affordable Care Act is the finest legislation of our generation or a communist plot, you can't escape that the website is a big, big problem. One piece of evidence: Even The New York Times, possibly the most fervent champion of the Obama administration agenda, felt compelled to write a detailed expose of what went wrong.

On our Federal Drive show on Thursday, Oct. 3, the third day of the exchanges (and a full week before the big papers were on to the meltdown), we had an interview with Ryan McElrath, the chief technology officer of AmericanEagle.com, a large website developer in Des Plaines, Ill. His company has done sites for pro football teams in the Super Bowl. It's also done some major federal sites.

He noted one smart thing Health and Human Services did do was replicate the front end of HealthCare.gov using a content delivery network operated by web services company Akamai. So, capacity wasn't exactly the problem. The problem was that infinite capacity is insufficient to overcome logic problems in the basic engine of the exchange.

In effect, HHS built an e-commerce site with lots of complex interactions, compounded by rules which were apparently difficult to translate into code. So much so, the administration is not even enforcing the means testing for subsidized insurance coverage. This became an issue in the acrimonious budget debates.

McElrath said his company's initial analysis indicated programming and architecture problems. They stemmed from how many disparate database calls a single account creation entails. It appeared the developers didn't vet the site with all of the popular browsers. Some functions didn't work even in Microsoft Internet Explorer. McElrath says the cloud deployment should have allowed the site to scale up, but the bottleneck was likely the programming.

We know now, HHS, and specifically the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), didn't manage the project well. Requirements were late. Plus money was insufficient. CMS acted as its own systems integrator, a set-up that has had mixed results at best in the history of large government IT projects.

The law required HHS to launch a Big Bang deployment on Oct. 1. It would have been better to roll the thing out slowly, function-by-function or state-by-state. Here some Republicans forced a political brouhaha by trying to delay the ACA for a year, and HHS may have ended up delaying it all by itself.

My question is, where were all the crowd-sourcing, cloud-computing, agile- developing, data-dot-goving, code-a-paloozing studs who have been swept into so many agencies by the Obama administration? There is certainly no shortage of smart techies with good track records. Why this seemingly under-funded, traditional and, frankly discredited, grand-design approach that has bedeviled federal IT development for decades?

In past projects, it was government agencies themselves who suffered the consequences. Whether the FBI had a case management system or the Air Force a logistics system or nothing to show for millions was interesting to appropriators and overseers, but none of the late and over-budget projects ever affected the public all that much.

In this case, the public dove into HealthCare.gov and hit the bottom of an empty pool.


Tom Temin is host of The Federal Drive, which airs 6-9 a.m. on Federal News Radio (1500AM). This post was originally written for his personal blog, Temin on Tech.