Government Computer Failures are Normal
How could the U.S. Government make such a mess of the roll-out of the website for ObamaCare? Actually, government computer systems incompetence is normal. The reaction to www.HealthCare.gov presupposes that our government normally does these things well.
ObamaCare is high profile and under the microscope. The filibuster and shutdown confrontation brought intense attention to the roll-out on October 1. But the U.S. Government routinely bungles computer projects large and small and wastes money.
Why didn't the Federal government learn anything from past fiascoes? How could President Obama imagine that the Federal Government could hijack and control one-sixth of the nation's economy when it repeatedly botched previous, less-ambitious projects? ObamaCare is vastly more complicated in design than the socialized medicine prevalent in European countries.
The Internal Revenue Service made an even worse disaster out of its $8 billion computer upgrade project labeled its "Business Systems Modernization." First, the IRS wasted $3 billion in the 1990's. Then the IRS started over in 1999 with a new attempt. By 2004, eight major projects were over-budget by $200 million, according to the U.S. General Accounting Office and the congressionally chartered IRS Oversight Board. The first stage to go live was three years behind schedule and $36.8 million over budget.
Old news? Well, did we learn anything? By the time we get to ObamaCare, why is Washington still repeating the same mistakes? CIO Magazine wrote in 2004: "Contracts with vendors didn't have clear deliverables. And no one, either within the IRS or among its dozens of contractors, was held accountable for results."
Meanwhile, delays often cause serious financial losses. The Los Angeles Times reported in 2006: "The Internal Revenue Service cost the federal government $200 million to $300 million this year because a computer program that screened tax returns for fraudulent refunds wasn't operating." Real money was lost because the new software did not work properly.
The federal government botched the $438 million computer upgrade for Air Traffic Controllers under the Federal Aviation Administration at the U.S. Department of Transportation. As of May 2013, the system is projected to go over-budget by $270 million, a 62 percent error, reported the U.S. Transportation Department's Inspector General. Meanwhile, a separate $2.4 billion high-altitude system has also gone over-budget by $300 million, and may cost yet another $200 million more.
The Defense Department spent $500 million on a Defense Travel System (DTS) to enable its personnel to use negotiated volume discount rates for airplane flights, hotels, and rental cars. The project dragged on for seven years, and was a mess. Like ObamaCare, airplane tickets often cost more, such as a $4,400 ticket on DTS in one example for a flight available for only $900 on Expedia.
The Defense Department's computer system for foreign military sales accounts is a $40 million failure, years behind schedule, likely to top $75 million. On March 4, 2013, Congressman Darrell Issa announced that the IRS had signed $500 million worth of contracts with a computer software company that has never done Federal government work before, which Issa suspected might be due to a personal relationship with an IRS employee.
Long before the Obama Care mess, the government supposedly carefully studied "lessons learned" from prior mistakes. Yet as Britney Spears put it: "Oops, I did it again." In 2004, the magazine "CIO" -- for Chief Information Officers -- observed: "It was clear early on that the original concept of completely outsourcing systems development to CSC wasn't working, but the IRS didn't put on the brakes until its vendor missed a major deadline and millions of dollars had been spent" CIO Magazine also observed "Although the IRS and its contractor, Computer Sciences Corp. (CSC), established procedures for its modernization projects, they weren't always followed."
These problems are part of the normal status quo in the Federal government. Your author spent five years in the U.S. Department of Education ("the lost years"). For part of that time, I was in charge of development of the Common Audit Resolution System (C.A.R.S.). I worked in the Audit Division, Management Improvement Service in the Office of Management. (Organizational names have changed over time.)
C.A.R.S. went hundreds of thousands of dollars over budget and was years late. Why? Partly because the contractor billed the U.S. Government for a "senior ORACLE programmer" but provided a sweet young woman who had not yet earned her bachelor's degree. That meant that USDE was billed a very high hourly rate for a senior programmer. And the beltway bandit contractor was paying the woman a very low rate as a college student still working on her undergraduate degree. The contractor was pocketing the extra profits by providing a lower-level programmer than what they were billing for.
But worse, this pleasant young woman, who really was trying her best, did not understand enough about programming to implement the design. When asked to create standard and familiar user interface pages and functions, these were new concepts to her, so she got them all wrong. She had to struggle with functionalities that would have been obvious to an experienced programmer. When I directed that these components be fixed to conform to the original design, the contractor billed even more hours for her to correct her mistakes. The Department paid at inflated prices for the work to be done wrong, and then paid again to do it the way it was supposed to be done originally.
My warnings were ignored. The only result of me exposing the waste was that Secretary Lamar Alexander's staff asked the Inspector General to investigate my use of an envelope to mail education-related information. I swear to God. It's in the OIG's files somewhere.
To understand why there is a problem with ObamaCare, consider the structure: Only the "Contracting Officer" in Grants and Contract Services has authority to give binding directions. Requests and instructions had to be relayed to GCS through the Office of Information Resources Management. OIRM had to be contacted through the designated OIRM contact in our office. She approached each day like passively watching a movie with no intention of taking action. So really, no one has the authority or responsibility to supervise the contractor. When I tried to fix the problem to save and protect taxpayer funds, no one liked me rocking the boat, including Lamar Alexander's political appointees.
Liberals spin grandiose schemes of utopias based on their belief that government can work miracles, that government can spin straw into gold. Conservatives oppose those flim-flam scams partly because government cannot actually accomplish what liberals hope. From the Federal Reserve creating economic growth out of thin air, to inventing green energy jobs, to controlling global climate, to changing human nature, to wishing away problems, liberalism depends fundamentally on a belief in the god-like omnipotence of government.
Portrayed as heartless and uncaring, conservatives would love to see the benefits that liberals day dream about. But conservatives live in the real world, where facts govern. Conservatives are not fooled when liberals put on their Professor Harold Hill routine, trying to sell air to the voters. The limitations of government must be clearly confronted. Liberals assume that government, being their god, can do anything. Conservatives have their doubts.