Obamacare Site Flaws Due to More Than “˜Talent Gap’

This picture taken in London on May 9, 2013 is a posed image of a laptop computer's keyboard shattering into pieces after an impact.
National Journal
Dustin Volz
Oct. 22, 2013, 6:01 p.m.

As Con­gress be­gins in­vest­ig­at­ing the rocky rol­lout of Health­Care.gov, tech­no­logy ex­perts warn that it may not find any easy scape­goats.

The site, they say, was a uniquely Her­culean un­der­tak­ing, fraught with leg­acy tech­no­logy, and that gov­ern­ment tech­no­logy products are routinely straight­jack­eted by fed­er­al bur­eau­cracy and reg­u­la­tions.

“Even if you put “¦ the best Apple team on this, they’re work­ing with a dif­fer­ent set of rules and re­stric­tions that would not al­low them to do what they can do in the private sec­tor,” said Emily Lam, seni­or dir­ect­or of health care and fed­er­al is­sues at the Sil­ic­on Val­ley Lead­er­ship Group. “It doesn’t mat­ter how bright your IT per­son is, es­pe­cially if they’re build­ing one piece or one com­pon­ent” of a very com­plex sys­tem.

With some con­gres­sion­al com­mit­tees hold­ing hear­ings and oth­ers con­duct­ing in­vest­ig­a­tions, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion has prom­ised quick re­pairs. The Health and Hu­man Ser­vices De­part­ment has pledged, in a blog post, to gath­er “some of the best and bright­est from both in­side and out­side gov­ern­ment” to solve the tech­nic­al prob­lems. Pres­id­ent Obama him­self spoke of a “tech surge.”

But some tech­no­lo­gists say the solu­tion may not be as simple as bring­ing in bet­ter tal­ent and let­ting them get to work. Gov­ern­ment has a long his­tory of flubs when it comes to in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy, hampered by its own ex­tens­ive list of rules and reg­u­la­tions that lim­it its abil­ity to openly and col­lab­or­at­ively en­gin­eer top-shelf di­git­al products.

“Many of the web­sites that go out from the gov­ern­ment are sub­par, and we don’t com­plain about them be­cause they’re not polit­ic­al foot­ball,” said Paul Ford, a tech­no­lo­gist and pro­gram­mer who has writ­ten about the botched rol­lout for Bloomberg Busi­nes­s­week. “It would be very hard to ship a good web­site un­der any cir­cum­stances they faced.”

Ford faults the gov­ern­ment’s de­cision to not make the back end of the web­site — the glitch-prone tech­nic­al por­tion deal­ing with things like pa­tient re­gis­tra­tion and cov­er­age plans — an open-source pro­ject that would have al­lowed out­side pro­gram­mers to col­lab­or­at­ively re­view and im­prove these things. That part of the cod­ing was primar­ily con­trac­ted out to CGI Fed­er­al, and the group has been un­will­ing to share its code.

Be­cause of pri­vacy and se­cur­ity con­cerns, gov­ern­ment be­lieves it is un­able to be fully trans­par­ent with its in­form­a­tion tech­no­logy — even though the front end of the web­site, its in­ter­face, was shared openly and coded by the D.C.-based start-up De­vel­op­ment Seed. Thou­sands of pages of reg­u­la­tions make it dif­fi­cult for gov­ern­ment to work for busi­ness, and fears of breaches in an era of high-level leaks and hack­ing activ­ity con­trib­ute to the reti­cence to change.

But the re­jec­tion of an open-source ap­proach on the back end of Health­Care.gov, ex­perts say, has con­trib­uted to the site’s prob­lems.

HHS said in its blog post that it is now “put­ting in place tools and pro­cesses to ag­gress­ively mon­it­or and identi­fy parts of Health­Care.gov where in­di­vidu­als are en­coun­ter­ing er­rors or hav­ing dif­fi­culty us­ing the site, so we can pri­or­it­ize and fix them.”

What ex­actly HHS is plan­ning is un­clear. But while a trans­par­ent, open-source de­vel­op­ment pro­cess would have likely lessened some of the site’s fail­ures, cred­it­ing all of the chal­lenges to that re­stric­tion be­lies a more nu­anced real­ity: cre­at­ing these web­sites is a his­tor­ic­ally com­plex task.

Few dis­pute that the people work­ing in Sil­ic­on Val­ley are tal­en­ted. But the in­vent­ive cre­ations they build are not hampered by the red-tape bur­eau­cracy of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment or shackled by dec­ades of ana­log-era data that need to be in­cor­por­ated with new pro­jects.

“I don’t share Sil­ic­on Val­ley’s high as­sess­ment of it­self,” Ford said. “They rarely have to deal with huge, aw­ful leg­acy sys­tems left over from a broken past.

“In­s­tagram didn’t have to in­teg­rate with Blue Cross Blue Shield.”

Yet there is some truth to the no­tion that there is a “tal­ent gap” in IT between the gov­ern­ment and the private sec­tor, said Alex Howard, a fel­low at the Columbia Journ­al­ism School who writes about the in­ter­sec­tion of gov­ern­ment and tech­no­logy. The is­sue is not one of per­son­nel but of out­put due to the lim­it­a­tions of gov­ern­ment­al pro­cess.

In the past few dec­ades, gov­ern­ment’s re­li­ance on power­ful con­tract­ors has frag­men­ted its IT pro­cess, Howard said, which has pro­duced a “bar­ri­er to entry for the most cut­ting-edge tech­no­logy firms” that are of­ten small start-up out­fits lack­ing the in-house cap­ab­il­it­ies to pur­sue large gov­ern­ment con­tracts in Wash­ing­ton. And that dy­nam­ic, re­gard­less of the com­plex­ity of the job, is cause for con­cern.

“You’ve got either in­com­pet­ence or neg­li­gence, and the only way the pres­id­ent would let this go [is] if someone told him it was OK,” Howard said. “And that is be­cause someone was ly­ing or didn’t know.”

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