ObamaCare: How Not to Build a Website

I think the reason why the website for ObamaCare glitched is because Controltec didn’t create it…

This is a real quote by one of our state government customers to our support center.

When I heard that I was honored. Our company has been building and hosting web-based systems for governments for over 15 years. That’s what we do. That’s what people pay us for. That’s why our company is there. Having one of our customers, even in humor, make a statement like the one above makes me feel proud.

And then it made me think about the Affordable Care Act.

Many things went wrong. The news that insurance companies are now canceling the existing policies of millions of people, no matter what the reasons, is not good for the Administration. The fact that prices for policies are higher than expected also does not help. There are many, many contributing factors that make this law controversial, and I don’t think I need to list them here. The talking heads are full of it. Just watch Fox News for a few hours on any day and you will get your fill.

With all the controversy, all the uproar about the Affordable Care Act, one thing the Administration didn’t need was a web site that didn’t work. This gives fodder to the critics, validates their claim that “the government” can’t manage anything, let alone a health care program. And I have to say: they are right.

The website fiasco, for one, was avoidable. How much better would the lives of the Administration and its supporters in Congress be if the federal website had come up on October 1 and run flawlessly?

The evidence shows that the site was put together with inferior coding, possibly based on outdated technology. Error messages relayed personal information over the Internet without secure encryption. People were able to bypass the email verification system. These are flaws that any entry-level hacker could quickly exploit and get access to private accounts to harvest personal information. The database is meanwhile riddled with mistakes and duplicated data records, resulting in multiple cancellations and enrollments. Records don’t have timestamps, so there is no telling which records are the correct ones and which are duplicates. These flaws are just some of the obvious things that made it into the news media.

The government put the Department of Health and Human Services in charge of designing and building a major web site using a host of government contractors. The Department of Health may know something about health, but it’s not equipped to build a major web site.  It also is not efficient at managing corporate entities. I am pretty sure that the contractors, for the most part, knew what they were doing, but the leadership and attention to detail at the highest project management level was probably sub-par. The result is a system based on faulty design, implemented with outdated technology, poorly tested and therefore overall not functional.

Fixing something like this is a nightmare. If the castle is built on a sandy foundation, it will sink and crumble, no matter how many reinforcements are installed into the walls.

The Administration has now put out a call for new contractors and Silicon Valley talent. I wonder what happened to the hundreds of millions of dollars paid to the old contractors? I don’t want to ask.

But Silicon Valley talent isn’t going to fix this. The only way to really make it work is tear it down and start with a new, solid foundation.

The sad thing is that this COULD have been done right from the start. There are companies that know how to build a major site that does not go down. Facebook, Twitter, Amazon and Google are some of the obvious ones. Have we ever seen those go down? When Twitter went down for just part of a day, the whole world was a-flutter. I cannot remember Facebook ever not responding when I checked in. Amazon seems to be there any time I want to buy something. This stuff does not have to be created from scratch. In this country we have the resources and know-how to make world-class sites.

It’s just that the government is not smart enough, nimble enough and flexible enough to avail itself of this talent and capability. It’s mired in stodgy procurement practices, weird contracting rules and endless delays. Things get done at a snail’s pace, and the creativity and the pride is often lacking. Bureaucrats know how to churn red tape, but they don’t know how to make competitive, slick, efficient systems.

The government should not be in the business of managing and building websites, just like it shouldn’t be building its own fighter aircraft. It should leave those things up to the people who know how to do that effectively and competitively.

Obama must be furious. At first he got away with the excuse that the site went down because of its tremendous popularity. On October 4 he said that the site was overwhelmed by volume. But by now he has given up on that story. “Nobody is madder than me about the fact that the website isn’t working,” he said.

If I ran a moving company and took on a contract to come to your house at 7:00am to start loading up, and I showed up at your house with my moving truck pulled by a tow-truck, because it was broken down, would I inspire your confidence?

This is exactly what happened to Obama with this website.

Obama didn’t need this. He should have delayed the launch by a year. This would have given the opposition more reason to decry the effort, and more ammunition and time to shoot it down, but it would have been infinitely better than this catastrophe.

Everything else could have been overcome. This website is a disaster, and it’s going to take a long time before it’s right.

Read my lips.

[attribution: some of my facts come from the article in Time Magazine of Nov 4, 2013, page 12]

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