In some ways Healthcare.gov, a politically symbolic government IT project, was doomed from the beginning. That's the consensus several reports over the weekend reached — the bidding process for private contractors is broken, and federal officials are failing to acknowledge just how behind schedule the site was.
According to a New York Times report on Sunday, there were several key mistakes made the by Obama administration months, even years before October 1, 2013, the debut of the Obamacare exchanges. CGI Federal, the major Healthcare.gov contractor, won its contract in December 2011, but the government took so long issuing the specifications for the project that CGI didn't start working until this spring. Several senior officials in the Department of Health and Human Services expressed doubts about the project, while others from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (tasked with managing the Healthcare.gov rollout) knew they didn't have the time or money to finish the project. In June, the Government Accountability Office, Congress' investigative arm, said the site had a lot of work to do before October.
In a better, less political world the site launch would have been delayed, and everyone would have just understood. But the Obama administration was worried about giving Republicans fuel for their anti-Obamacare fire, so officials were told failure wasn't an option. The site would open as planned on October 1, just as government officials like Marilyn B. Tavenner, the administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and Kathleen Sebelius, the secretary of health and human services, said it would. We saw how well that turned out.
It's not just that the contractor started work late. There are also been concerns about the way that the contractors were vetted. A report last night from the Washington Examiner claims that the government only accepted one bid for the designing of Healthcare.gov, from CGI Federal. CGI, based in Montreal, has a history of less than stellar work, including a failed online medical registry for Ontario, Canada.
As Alex Howard wrote at BuzzFeed yesterday, the root of the federal exchange site's problems may be the way the government selects contractors for IT projects. As Howard notes, the rules that govern how contractors are selected are meant to protect against corruption, but they also stifle experimentation and innovation. Howard wrote:
The trouble is that all those rules are selecting for huge companies that are very good at getting contracts, not necessarily in delivering results. They’re also giving chief information officers and procurement officers an incentive to avoid the risk of working with newer firms, as opposed to managing it.
President Obama's former chief information officer once called the big enterprise companies, who also send lobbyist to the hill to influence legislation and projects, the "IT cartel." And though Obama and his administration have made strides towards improving the process, it's pretty far down on his second term checklist. Which is too bad, because the best and only consistently functional part of healthcare.gov, the home page, was designed by a D.C. start-up. Imagine if they'd designed the whole thing.