October 27, 2013

So who is to blame for the problems with healthcare.gov? Well if you listened to the primary contractor this week at a Capital Hill hearing, apparently all the blame lays on the Obama administration:

Executives from CGI Federal and QSSI, the site’s main contractors, are among four companies testifying before the House Energy and Commerce Committee Thursday on the glitches.

The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) "serves the important role of systems integrator or `quarterback' on this project and is the ultimate responsible party for the end-to-end performance," CGI’s Senior Vice President Cheryl Campbell said in prepared testimony, according to The Associated Press.

"No amount of testing within reasonable time limits can adequately replicate a live environment of this nature," she added.

I happen to agree with that. It is hard to stress test a website and predict exactly what kind of traffic it might get, especially something as highly anticipated as healthcare.gov.

But is the government to blame there? Having owned my own web development company for over ten years now, any contract I enter into has a clause to address changes and that it may affect not only price, but also due date. So why didn't CGI Federal include such a clause? Perhaps they were just too quick to jump on the money that came with building the site.

What I haven't heard is if the lead people from the different contractors informed the government that the changes they wanted would mean less chance for testing, meaning a greater chance of problems, or did they just say "sure, we can do it" and moved on. And let's not forget, we aren't talking about people new to the government contract game. CGI Federal is basically built on government contracts, so they know very well what is involved. Where they can't blame the government is for the actual code they produced, such as the Javascript code, which runs in a visitors browser when they visit various parts of the page. For example, the registration page downloads over 2mb of Javascript files to the user's browser. Some of it is open source libraries and some proprietary code, written specifically for the website. As a developer, I can tell you that proprietary code is absolutely painful to look at.

And there's another place where the government can take a blunt of the blame, and it's something I doubt Congress will address - a highly broken procurement system, that exists not only in this administration, but also the previous one:

CGI was one of 16 companies that had been qualified by HHS during President George W. Bush's second term to deliver, without public competition, a variety of hardware, software and communication products and services.

Now this is a serious problem and one that should cause bi-partisan outrage. Sadly though our elected officials don't seem to worry about it that much. Instead we let these no-bid contracts go on, as they have for years, and that leads to problems like we see today.

So if Congress is really wanting to find out what happened with the roll-out and prevent something similar from happening in the future, then they need to ask why government contractors aren't putting their foot down when unrealistic changes are being requested and why we keep awarding no-bid contracts. Get answers to those, then we might be on the way to fixing a problem that has plagued our government for years. Without pushing those questions, then these hearings are nothing more than heckling, as Politico puts it.

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