Healthcare.gov – The Zero Percent Solution

Silicon Valley has correctly heaped scorn on the implementation of Healthcare.gov.  Part of it is the general anti-government bias of Valley types, but it is basically correct in this case!   Kevin Roose hits the mean streets of the Peninsula and rounds up some choice quotes, and Eric Ries reads my mind:

“You could take any engineer on the street here and ask them, ‘I have a friend who works for a private company — don’t mention the government — who’s thinking about a five-year, $100 million Oracle installation, and they’ve hired an outsourced contractor to build it for them. It’s going to be proprietary, hosted in their own data center, Oracle-based, with waterfall management. What are the odds that it’s working on Day One?’ And everyone here will tell you: zero percent.”

He’s absolutely devastatingly correct, and this isn’t even the sum of what’s wrong with the implementation.  On top of the factors Ries mentions, it’s got some other wonderful aspects.  It’s not an outsourced contractor, it’s many.  There’s no one at our hypothetical company with the required project management experience, but they don’t have the budget to hire a lead systems integrator.  Oh, and because of the states declining to run their own exchanges, they’ve had a massive scope change without any more time or budget.  And and top of all of this you have several actively hostile stakeholders working to undermine the project.

In any software implementation, when you have a big scope or requirements change, that is very bad.  You have three choices – you can bring on more people, you can take more time, and it will break.  There was no budget to bring on more people, and besides that there are diminishing returns to bringing on more people late in the game – with the code base basically already built, it will take a long time to get new people up to speed.  They couldn’t take more time, because they were pledged to launch on October 1st.  So they went with the third option, which was launching a broken piece of software.

I wrote about this a few days ago and return to it because it’s just so incredibly frustrating.  The government wouldn’t be having these problems if it could actually pay a decent wage to get people with technical talent working there.  They don’t even have to compete with Facebook or Google – there are plenty of older programmers with family who would love the stability of government work if it paid enough for them to live in the insanely expensive DC area.  The reflexive hatred of many in government – Democrats and Republicans both – to paying employees a fair wage is hollowing out the government’s ability to fulfill basic tasks.

This is nuts.  People in both parties love to talk about running the government like a business, but this would be no way to run a business and it’s no way to run a country.

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