Cronyism, incompetence cited in failure of site

A report by a private foundation on how the Obamacare website was designed reveals that cronyism and sheer incompetence is at fault for the spectacular failures of the rollout.

InfoWorld summed it up: "It was built by people who are apparently far more familiar with government cronyism than they are with IT."

"All but one of of the 47 contractors who won contracts to carry out work on the Affordable Care Act worked for the government prior to its passage," the report reads. Some of the names ought to be familiar: Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Deloitte, and Booz Allen Hamilton, all of whom assumed different roles and worked on different aspects of the project.

As familiar as those names might be, especially to those who follow Beltway lobbying practices, few of them would be as commonly associated with large-scale IT projects as, say, Google,, or Dell would be -- especially when it came to building the public-facing components of the system. (Techdirt concurs.)


The most central name in the list of contractors, and the one most closely identified with the outward failure of, is CGI Federal, which the Sunlight Foundation describes as "a longtime provider of IT services to the federal government." Most of CGI Federal's previous work centered around technology services for Medicare and Medicaid. According to the New York Times, CGI Federal claimed many problems stemmed from the way the government itself managed the process, including the in-house coordination of the project between subcontractors rather than having a separate contractor do the coordination itself.

All the same, CGI Federal -- which received $88 million for its work since March of this year -- told Congress in September it was indeed ready for the onslaught of users that would come when opened to the public. The same was claimed by UnitedHeath subsidiary Quality Software Services, another partner in the project that received $55 million for its work.

One other name in particular on the contractor list probably won't be familiar to readers, but ought to be from now on: Science Applications International Corp., or SAIC. Nominally a defense contractor, SAIC has been involved with many government projects with ghastly end results, such as New York City's fraud- and corruption-riddled $600 million CityTime payroll software boondoggle. When the East Bay Express reported on Oakand, Calif.'s surveillance plan, it was worried about SAIC's involvement in that project as well, not least because the people hiring SAIC for the job seemed unaware of the company's reputation.

The question now is how long before the system actually works as it's supposed to? The reaction of the contractors should be telling: perhaps never. And the reason was apparent as far back as March, 2013. No system however it was designed could fulfill the tasks set forth by HHS. This July article from National Journal was both prescient and instructive:

In an ideal world, the exchange websites need to be able to talk to several federal agencies-IRS to verify an applicant's income and employment status, the Department of Homeland Security to determine her citizenship, and the state government to see if she qualifies for Medicaid, to name a few-all in real time, so a person could fill out a form and purchase insurance in one sitting.

Each of those departments has its own computer system and its own means of tracking information. Creating a "data hub" to share them has been a challenge, as a recent Government Accountability Office report highlighted. It is increasingly clear that the kind of, one-stop shopping that was once described - and that Obama himself referenced in a speech on Monday -- will not be available in most parts of the country.


"It's the joyous, simultaneous, nonlinear equation from hell," said Kip Piper, a former top official at HHS and OMB who is now a consultant in close contact with IT vendors. Piper said it's no surprise that the administration has given up on certain functions given the technological complexity needed and the short time-frame.

So, in addition to the cronyism and incompetence, add "the joyous, simultaneous, nonlinear equation from hell."That just about sums up the entire mess.

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