By now, it’s clear to everyone that the launch of the Affordable Care Act has been a disaster. What’s less clear is why.
During a congressional hearing last week about the implementation of HealthCare.gov, government contractors hired to translate the new law into a workable website continually shifted blame from themselves to the Obama administration and the Health and Human Services Department. While the contractors themselves are clearly at fault too, here are five key reasons why the administration should get the majority of the blame -- an assessment I offer as a website developer myself.
The first is testing. Working out the kinks on this site should have started on Oct. 1, 2012 at the latest, not two weeks before its launch. With something of HealthCare.gov’s magnitude, every possible problem scenario should have been worked through in advance. When this is not done, the client stands to look like a fool -- and well it should. HealthCare.gov was apparently released as an alpha test, the first of four testing stages. The others are beta, detail and destruction/break testing (when the creators try to break the system). These should all occur before final release. The vendors, the White House and HHS are equally responsible for this mistake.
Then there’s “scope creep.” This term refers to the requirements that come from a client after an initial budget has been worked through and a proposal signed. The price ceiling for HealthCare.gov has more than doubled, with the only explanation being scope creep. Clients think that they can add or change anything they want for the same price, but that’s not how Web development works. Clients are charged for every additional change or add-on they request. The term for this charge is sometimes called the PITA tax (pain in the … you know). Scope creep is the sole fault of the White House and HHS, and it is something that kills a majority of projects.
Next there’s communication. A statement made last week by CGI Group’s Cheryl Campbell offered a glimpse of a dysfunctional cycle of communication with the government. In reference to whether the contractor communicated that the site was unready for launch, she said: “It is not our position to tell our client to go live or not go live.” As a vendor and as a responsible business, yes, you are in a position to tell your clients what they need to know and recommend what they should do. Customers depend on contractors for their expertise to make a functional final product. If the project needs to be delayed or falls behind schedule, the contractor needs to say so. As for the client, if the contractor isn’t being honest or forthcoming about deadlines or functionality issues, then the client needs to ask about them. Communication is a two-way street and both sides seem to be at fault.
Another glaring issue is the timeline for the site. Even though the Affordable Care Act was enacted in March 2010, the contracts related to HealthCare.gov were not awarded until 2011 and the site requirements were not completed until March 2013.
Finally, picking the right contractor to create a website like this is fundamentally important. CGI, the Canadian contractor that was chosen, was fired in 2012 by the province of Ontario over its inability to make a similar website for $46 million. Shopping for the right contractor is very important not only for a working relationship, but also for their ability to do the job correctly. This was the responsibility of the White House and HHS.
A client can’t simply ask for a website and have it happen instantly, especially not one of HealthCare.gov’s magnitude. Private sector software companies will gladly push back their completion dates to make sure the product they release is a good one. That’s preferable to the fallout that comes when CNET and other tech sites tear a new, dysfunctional product apart.
No one should ever push for a project to be released before it has been properly assembled and tested. Too many clients look at building a website like buying clothes at a department store, but the two couldn’t be more different. A client needs to be involved with every step of site development. If they aren’t, digital nightmares like this one occur.
The White House and HHS could have prevented this. Instead, their spin doctors are working to push the blame onto the developers. Are the developers faultless? Not at all. They should have been more upfront and blunt with their client. But a contractor’s fault is minor compared to lack of oversight and responsibility by a client. This rests squarely on the shoulders of our president and his administration.
Read more: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2013/10/30/why_obama_hhs_are_to_blame_for_website_fiasco_120501.html#ixzz2jE19n6PM
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