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Obama administration to end contract with company behind HealthCare.gov (washingtonpost.com)
44 points by robdoherty2 1376 days ago | hide | past | web | 50 comments | favorite

What's sad is that it wasn't so long ago we were treated to breathless articles regarding the software that was used as part of the President's re-election campaign, which apparently was well-tested and well-engineered enough to actually do its job when the time came:


It seems today's politicians are (at least in some cases) familiar with what it takes to build reliable software. Perhaps the problem is that they are only willing to see that it's done when it benefits them directly, but not when their constituents need it.

The requirements for working with the USGov are restrictive enough that only specific companies are capable of participating in the bidding process. The Democratic party itself and Obama's re-election are, by contrast, private organizations that are not limited by these rules.

Basically, it seems like the government sourcing process has shrunk the pool of potential bidders too small to provide a properly competitive marketplace for software for USGov customers.

> Basically, it seems like the government sourcing process has shrunk the pool of potential bidders too small to provide a properly competitive marketplace for software for USGov customers.

And don't think for a second that this is unintentional.

The INTENT is to limit corruption. If they could give contracts to anybody they want, then they could reward donors.

I think it's actually achieved that goal. It comes at the expense of competence, however, as those with the best lawyers (not best developers) win contracts.

Except it hasn't. The current system has turned what is left of the pool of potential bidders into key donors.

So we have a choice between corruption and incompetence ... I'm pretty sure that corruption would actually be better, at least shit would work.

We only have a choice of which we want to start with. Eventually we end up with both.

> And don't think for a second that this is unintentional.

Okay, what if I do?

Lobbying exists and is legal. Corruption is ever-present and well-documented, from 3rd to 1st world countries. Contracts are widely regarded by private industry to be obscenely overpriced at best, and highway robbery at worst. Senators are regularly known to block necessary bills to write in pet projects that will benefit their campaigns/constituents directly, even at the detriment of everyone else. Want an example? Northrop Grummond is hardly a scrappy small company, but they lost out to Boeing, even though Boeing was going to create a worse, more expensive aircraft, because senators in South Carolina didn't want their state to lose the jobs.

If you are anything but cynical regarding the government contract bidding process, you're asking to be made a fool of.

It was probably intended as something else, but it has probably become a way for discouraging competition through mechanisms like regulatory capture.

It's not really enough to just handwave the word "regulatory capture." What's your evidence that the acquisitions process has been captured.

I'm obviously speculating here.

Harper Reed (CTO of Obama for America, who can be credited for those articles you're referring to) and Clay Johnson (CEO of the Dept for Better Technology) wrote an op-ed addressing what they see as the root cause for this kind of failure: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/25/opinion/getting-to-the-bot...

Well, think this out a bit farther. Let's say the SNAFU coefficient of a piece of software is 5%. If you're using the software to manage your election campaign, you lose 5% of your digital premium (over traditional electioneering using posters and TV commercials and other one-size-fits-all mass communication media), most of whom will presumably vote for The Other Candidate - that's bad, but you can just as easily lose the same or larger with a careless remark (eg Mitt Romney's casual dismissal of 47% of the electorate as 'takers' at the last election which ended up alienating an awful lot of swing voters even though he was obviously pandering to his audience of wealthy donors at the time he said that).

But put that in the government, and you're potentially disenfranchising 5% of the citizenry which is not only politically foolish but quite likely illegal, given constitutional requirements about equal treatment and so forth. If you have to provide universal service of some kind, then your marginal costs go way up. Suppose 99% correctness were the acceptable standard, such that Social Security, Medicare, VA etc. could just ditch that 1% of claimants that caused the most administrative problems; the administrative savings would probably be far more than 1%, I'm guessing more like 10-15% because once the administrative burden of dealing with a given citizen rose above 1 or 2 standard deviations you could just dump them from the system and cut your losses.

No shit. This whole ordeal has been nothing short of a complete and utter fucking disaster. And how much did the government pay to have this work done [1]? This is procurement at its finest. The government could have easily paid 10% of what they did to a tech start-up who would have done a much better job utilising scalable technologies.

[1] http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/fact-checker/wp/2013/10/...

I rather think that depends on what technological expertise the the start-up brought to bear on the problem.

I understand it's chic to think that Healtcare.gov is "just another website", especially among a certain crowd who think that all development is web development, and best done on a MacbookPro using RoR/node/<functional language Y>/Go + <insert fad-of-the-day JS framework here>. It's a mistaken impression, though, because we aren't talking about some from-scratch system. We're talking about communication with and between a lot of legacy systems requiring what is almost certainly a frankenstein-like nightmare of patchwork APIs that dive into programming languages and styles hipster 20-somethings at hot S.F. Start Up X wouldn't understand because it's beneath them (I'm exaggerating and generalizing here for effect--this isn't to impugn all 20-somethings, start-ups, etc.).

Honestly I don't think there is any contractor who could have pulled this project off flawlessly, or even very much better than the group of misfits who did Healthcare.gov did, just because of the sheer complexity of the project compounded with the increased politically-motivated interference from government officials that comes with such high-profile projects.

Have you actually used the site? I tried to register, it's a complete joke. It crashed twice and eventually I got to a point where I literally could not figure out what I was supposed to do next. I mean, I'm a programmer and I couldn't figure it out. Everyone else I talked to who tried to use it had the same experience.

The site literally does not function, this has nothing to do with integrations.

> Honestly I don't think there is any contractor who could have pulled this project off flawlessly

A few flaws could be excused but the site was a disaster.

> or even very much better than the group of misfits who did Healthcare.gov

In just a couple of months, the current contractor group was able to clean up most of the mess and improve the site dramatically. In just two months! Imagine what they could have pulled off if the group was put together earlier.

The were able to clean up and improve an existing system, yes. That doesn't imply anything about their abilities to have created it from the ground up.

To me, it implies they have even more ability than if I saw them build it from the ground up. They were able to read the garbage written by the other developers and make something useful out of it. Pretty impressive!

> The government could have easily paid 10% of what they did to a tech start-up

And when it failed, the government would be criticized for hiring a start-up to do a job that was obviously so enormous that only a big established contractor could take it on. And rightfully so.

>And if it failed

Fixed that for you.

Oh, this project would have failed anyway. A lot of the work is integration with backwards systems, in a political environment. Point me at the startup engineers that are interested in working on that.

Sure, a mythical online website built from scratch in Node.js with a Mongo backend can be out together by a bunch of college graduates, but without talking to a dozen other systems this site is not going to do much, and as soon as you take people out of the comfort zone of shiny toys we'll see how long the remain interested when you end up in SOAP and CORBA or are screen scraping mainframes. The people willing to tolerate this mess don't generally intersect with the startup crowd.

... The people willing to tolerate this mess don't generally intersect with the startup crowd.

But this is a space that could be disrupted (albeit not easily). And isn't Clever[1] trying to do something similar in the education space?

[1] http://www.businessinsider.com/clever-y-combinator-student-i...

I think thats unfair.

Interaction with legacy systems is all the future has left, plus its a problem - and the most elegant hack to scrape the aging DoJ mainframe wins the prize.

No, its clear public data architecture has to change.

Would you take that contract? I sure wouldn't. Something this big, and this failure prone, and which is being used as a political football besides...no amount of money is worth that.

This shouldn't even be about politics. Amazon serves millions of people a day and their site works perfectly (even if it is horribly designed) every time I've tried to use it. Healthcare.gov is used once by everyone (that needs coverage) to pick a plan and pay for it.

People are fucking dying because they can't get coverage.

Amazon.com came online 20 years ago and has been slowly iterated upon and changed by thousands of employees since then. Slightly different.

I'd be willing to try for 20M.

Worth a shot.

I have worked on government IT projects in a country that has 160 times less citizens and I would not take this kind of project for this kind of money.

That's because you're missing the point:

The damned thing doesn't have to work, it just has to make the administration look good. The White House gets to look forward-thinking in rolling out this amazing new technology to help fix healthcare, and they get to look good by being the underdog victim fighting against the bloated government contractor that tried to defraud the taxpayer.

All you have to do is take the money, play the patsy, and everything will be fine.

Oh yes, I am way too dumb for that.

And too principled! :)

Too many lies in this article to take more from this than the bare fact that CGI Federal will be replaced by Accenture (the latter of which is no prize from what I've heard).

I.e. the government's Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) were notoriously the "prime contractor" until the 3rd week of October (when replaced by contractor QSSI, also responsible for the "data hub"), and the attacks on the contractors are misplaced when their management was so impossibly bad.

The linked Washington Post article is not great, but better: http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/obama-administration-...

Accenture taking over is like replacing dumb & dumber with larry, moe and curly.

>>Accenture, which is one of the world’s largest consulting firms, has extensive experience with computer systems on the state level, and it built California’s new health insurance exchange.

Hasn't California's exchange had big problems too?

Accenture is Arthur Andersen, and they've got a long history of extracting maximum value for shareholders from government contracts (state and local).


Arthur Andersen spawned Andersen Consulting spawned Arthur Anderson Business Consulting spawned Accenture. Some of AABC splintered off and joined Hitachi Consulting, some went elsewhere.

The history of computer consulting is varied, interesting, and tragic.

The website for California's exchange is still broken; it's broken so badly that the customer support phone # the site tells you to call is outright rejecting calls (lots of people having issues). You get a recorded message saying that due to high call volumes you should (slightly paraphrased) go fuck yourself and use the nonfunctional website.

They have an online chat queue for customer support that's similarly busted; you sit in the queue for hours with the ETA randomly changing before it says you've been booted out of the queue.

I've always been under the impression that accenture were a "bums on seats" consultancy, graduates cranking out low quality java code.

California exchange site sucked big time at the start and still sucks, but I've heard stories of people I know that actually signed up there. So compared to healthcare.gov it works better. Compared to normal proper site it's a disaster (or at least was couple of months ago when I last checked) but I guess good enough for government work.

Am I the only one who thinks that the failures were intentional - that the whole mix-up is a passive-aggressive way of herding the USA into eventual single-payer?

If Washington DC is, in fact, really that stupid and it is not intentional, under what strange notion of justice am I to pay taxes to these morons?

Depends on what you mean by intentional. I'm not sure if the guys that call the shots are Machiavellian enough for such things - given how incompetent they are in everything else, hard to imagine they would be super-competent in long-reaching plots. If they had been able to execute long-running plans of such magnitude with such certainty, they wouldn't screw up so many things so badly as they had.

However, the resulting vector of their efforts and failures may very well point into that direction, and not without their cooperation and help, since once they beat insurance industry into full dependency and make the population rely on subsidized care, the next logical step would be to eliminate the middlemen - there would be no point for them to exist anymore, at least not as independent entities - given that they would have no independence as such and serve no useful function in such setup.

>Am I the only one who thinks that the failures were intentional - that the whole mix-up is a passive-aggressive way of herding the USA into eventual single-payer?

Probably not the only one. I don't think they were intentional, but I pray you're right because single-payer is a much superior system.

One of the differences between creating and enforcing laws and creating software is that software actually has to work. The efficacy of a law is open to endless debate, and it doesn't actually have to end up with any intended effect. But software, you can't legislate software.

It's obvious that government shouldn't be in the software business, and the government would agree "that's why we use contractors for this!". But when 100% of your revenue comes from the government, in a way you're basically the same thing.

The government isn't exactly doing too well with any of its software projects. The IRS had problems during tax season and the FBI has cancelled and restarted multiple times. The Dept of Interior has been held in contempt of court for how bad their systems have been.

Talk about going from the frying pan to the fire.

I here the points about about legacy systems. How much would it have cost to scrap those old systems and build from the ground up.

Is anyone surprised by this?

I wouldn't say I'm surprised, but it definitely is not necessarily usual.

Companies usually win contracts of this magnitude because they "have people who know people". Consequently, "CGI Federal" is, or at least was, well connected with the people in government necessary to shovel boondoggles their way. It is what it is.

I guess in this case the poor optics overcame the connections.

Slightly surprised, but only because I would have thought that the company had kept up their payments to the necessary campaign funds.

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