5 lessons IT leaders can learn from Obamacare rollout mistakes

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Experts share lessons IT leaders can learn from the problems with the October 1 rollout of the HealthCare.gov website.

Healthcare front page.jpg

There’s still plenty of disagreement about the ideology, efficacy and even legality of the Affordable Care Act (i.e. Obamacare), but there’s broad consensus that the launch of HealthCare.gov website was a dismal failure. And like so many tech rollout disasters, this one should serve as a teachable moment that helps other organizations avoid making similar mistakes.

HealthCare.gov is the federal government's health insurance marketplace portal, designed to serve millions of uninsured people in 36 states. The site was built by CGI Federal, a Canadian company that is a federal IT contractor. The site crashed soon after its October 1 launch and has been plagued by technical problems. It has been unable to keep up with demand, and most users cannot complete enrollment.

According to CBS News, “The White House contended that this was a sign that demand was high: ‘These bugs were functions of volume,' said U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park. ‘Take away the volume and it works.’”

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As of November 14, CBS News said the White House reported that the site could process 17,000 registrations an hour. With 30 million Americans potentially needing to use the site, it would take two and a half months to enroll everyone with the site operating 24/7. In the first month, only 106,000 people enrolled.

When asked about the problems with the site, Rachel Maisier, spokeswoman for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which oversees the site, declined to answer specific questions and instead referred to press releases with directions for using the site. Maisier said, “The total obligation is $630 million for the IT system and we have spent $174 million of that total obligation. “

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Tech Pro Research turned to IT experts to glean wisdom from the failures of the HealthCare.gov rollout. The consensus is that the five key things that other companies can learn from this site’s failure include the following:

  1. If you’re going to launch a new website, decide whether to use in-house talent or outsource. If you opt to outsource, hire a good contractor.
  2. Follow the right steps to hire the best vendor for the project, and properly manage the relationship.
  3. Have one person in charge of the project with absolute veto power.
  4. Do not gloss over any problems along the way. Be open and honest about the progress of the project. And test the site.
  5. Be ready for success or failure. Hope for the best but prepare for the worst and have guidelines to manage any potential failure.

The project, overall, was mismanaged. That has been obvious from the news reports. Paula Tompkins, founder and CEO of Dearborn, Mich.-based ChannelNet, said, “Management always seems to underestimate the complexity of getting systems to interact in a consistent and usable fashion. I have been involved in many large scale (enterprise) technology based projects that have been mis-managed. I always recommend that a company doesn’t bite off more than it can chew. You need to be realistic about what can be accomplished in the time and for the budget available.”

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Deciding to outsource or go in-house 

It's important early on to decide whether to outsource a project or go in-house. One of the biggest learning points that other companies can take from the website’s failure, according to Sanchit Vir Gogia, chief analyst of Greyhound Research in New Delhi, India, is that “the problems did not crop up due to massive traffic alone. A number of undetected system glitches existed which led to the issues. The fact that such massive system errors went undetected shows that the system architecture had not been tested before its official launch. This is the biggest learning from the whole incident, that one simply cannot avoid proper testing before any website or program launch especially when the launch is on such a scale.”

Steps to finding best vendor

To avoid such problems, a company must hire the best people for the job. This often means the first decision must be whether to use in-house talent or outsource. It’s best to stay in-house, but if an outside vendor must be used, then take care in hiring the best one for the job.

To choose the right contractor, Andreas Grabner, technology strategist at the Compuware APM Center of Excellence has some tips. He said, “Experience with large-scale, complex deployments and deep understanding of Application Performance Management (APM) are crucial for any contractor engaged in developing and rolling-out a program of this scope and scale. To be sure the right contractor is engaged, a company needs to dive deeply into their experience in load-testing, performance, scalability issues, and technologies to analyze the entire depth and breadth of a site like HealthCare.gov from the inside out, as well as from the end-user perspective and identify problems down to the root-cause, all they way to a single offending line of code.”

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David Packer, a principal of X by 2 in Farmington Hills, Mich., said, “Choosing a contractor/vendor is very important and very difficult. Superficial analysis based on marketing materials, sales presentations, and a few prepared references won’t cut it.  A more thorough analysis and selection process is needed on important initiatives.  The people performing this analysis need to have the experience delivering similar initiates themselves, so they know what to ask and what to look for.  If you don’t have these people on staff find a strong, objective partner that has the expertise to help you do this. Why bring the A-team after failure; projects like this should be staffed with A-team from the get-go.”

Give project manager absolute power

It's crucial to give one person absolute power over the project. They can veto anything along the way without needing a group consensus.

To choose the best project manager to do this, Packer said, “The challenge is how do you tell the really good project managers and architects from the pretenders and how do you avoid the administrative PMs that add very little value on important system implementations.  It’s difficult to tell the difference unless you are a strong manager and leader yourself. If you have a strong project manager that you know and trust on staff or available to you, have them help you interview other PMs for key projects.  They may be able to help spot important strengths and weaknesses in candidates.  If you don’t have someone capable to help, do your best to pick project managers and architects that have a proven track record for delivering projects similar to yours.  Don’t just go by their resume.  Talk to the key stakeholders they’ve delivered for in the past.  If they’re good, they’ll have a long list of customers that are happy to sing their praise.”

Be transparent about project

The next important step is to be honest about the progress of the project, according to Robert Kelly, managing partner of Raleigh, N.C.-based Kelly Project Solutions.

“Ethics and transparency are critical to the success of the project, the PMs career, and the long-term credibility of the organization. Once organizations accept the fact that projects are either tackling innovative, new ground or solving issues that run deep in an organization, then everyone will be in a position to share the issues. Obamacare appears to have come down to a political play and the customers (Americans) suffered.  This isn’t far from what happens in other government agencies or privately owned companies either.  Most surveys show project success hovering around 35 percent.  If you are an executive and your project manager isn’t telling you about issues and shifting dates, then be very careful,” Kelly said.

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To support a spirit of transparency, “Management must express their understanding of the challenges ahead for the project team. This isn’t saying that failure is acceptable, but if the tools are being used and talent is working hard then the company must support their efforts.”

Kelly suggested developing a project intranet that stakeholders and anyone else can review to see how the project directly supports business goals, project plans and weekly meeting minutes.

“In order to effectively mitigate and manage failures, companies must hire project leaders.  It is easy to say that everyone should accept that issues will happen and management should provide support, but the project leader must earn/maintain a level of trust for this to work.  A project leader will not simply state that an issue occurred and a new date,” Kelly said.

Prepare for success or failure

And Vaughn Bullard, CEO and founder of Washington, D.C.-based Build.Automate Inc., said, “No matter how much you plan, something will always go wrong. From my perspective, it looks as though nothing was planned other than the actual marketing of a website that is, at this point, going on seven weeks into public rollout and not completely functional. It would appear accuracy, function and actual workability were sacrificed because the development and launch team were more worried about the consequences of it not rolling out.  Unfortunately, the consequences of rolling out not functional are worse than if they had just shown restraint and delayed rollout of the website.  This should have never gone public without extensive testing.  The contractor telling the government that it was ready despite the obvious major flaws in the system is just baffling to me.  If I had an employee that did something similar, I would have terminated their employment.  It's pretty simple.”

What it comes down to in the end, Bullard said, is that, “Quality and integrity count in all things."

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