Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Healthcare.gov, Good Enough for Government Work

The rollout problems at the healthcare.gov website continue to embarrass and plague the Obama administration.

So what if they spent $400 million on the website. Hey, I live in the state of Massachusetts where the Big Dig highway and tunnel project cost $14.6 billion and still a ceiling panel fell and killed someone shortly after it opened. Let's not even mention the ginsu guardrails.


I found the source of the problem in this AP article on The Huffington Post:
"Crammed into conference rooms with pizza for dinner, some programmers building the Obama administration's showcase health insurance website were growing increasingly stressed. Some worked past 10 p.m., energy drinks in hand. Others rewrote computer code over and over to meet what they considered last-minute requests for changes from the government or other contractors."
Some worked past 10pm? The programmers I know, myself included, do their best work from 10pm to 4am. If only some of the healthcare.gov coders worked past 10pm, no further explanation is needed.

Meanwhile, the new mantra is "we're listening — and improving every day". But is this really true:
"The initial consumer experience of HealthCare.gov has not lived up to the expectations of the American people."
It went about as well as Dilbert or I would have expected. Whose idea was it to roll out the whole website for all the states at once without going through either a beta test period or a pilot launch for a few states? The same folks who came up with this idea to fix it with a Tech Surge:
"To ensure that we make swift progress, and that the consumer experience continues to improve, our team has called in additional help to solve some of the more complex technical issues we are encountering."
Now, in my experience, adding more people to a programming project under stress will only make the project take longer. All those new people have to be brought up to speed. And who is going to take the time to teach them? It better be the best and brightest people on the existing team, the exact people you instead want hard at work fixing problems.

Update: Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, President Obama's point person on Obamacare, was interviewed by Dr. Sanjay Gupta about the healthcare.gov launch problems on CNN. Watch Secretary Sebelius squirm over the so-called Tech Surge:
SEBELIUS: You heard [President Obama] yesterday in the Rose Garden and, you know, he is the first to admit that the Web site doesn't work the way we need it to work. So that's one of the reasons, Sanjay, we have announced this tech surge and bringing in new eyes and ears.

Jeff Zients, who's a colleague and friend of mine from this administration, is coming in as a management consultant to the administrator of CMS, to make sure we look at the whole management system. We want to make sure that we have the best and the brightest in terms of tech folks. We have gathered them together and asked the contractors to bring their A team to the table, have asked the presidential innovation fellows to add some strength, because we just want to make sure we get all the right answers and do what is needed to be done as quickly as possible to open up the doors of this marketplace.

GUPTA: Jeff Zients brings a CEO background with him.

SEBELIUS: He does.

GUPTA: What about tech people? We hear the best and the brightest. Are there people or companies that we're going to recognize? Can you give us some names?

SEBELIUS: Well, right now, we've asked all of our contractors to look at their teams on the ground and bring in their absolute A team. And I am confident that that is happening every day. While we also, the presidential innovation fellows --

GUPTA: The contractors didn't do such a great job so far.

SEBELIUS: Well, I --

GUPTA: I mean did -- why didn't they bring their A team in in the first place?

SEBELIUS: I can't tell you --

GUPTA: Why are we saying in three weeks now bring your A team into this whole equation?

SEBELIUS: We have hoped that they had their A team on the table, but I -- I am talking to CEOs and urging them to make sure that we have the talent that they have available. I think all of them have folks who are assigned to a project.
It's painfully obvious that she doesn't know what she is talking about. Of course the contractors brought their A teams in the first place, grading on a scale because the sort of companies who get hired for government work can't actually recruit A talent for such projects unless they promise them they only have to do C work.

But that wasn't the problem, the problem was the website just wasn't ready to go live. They either didn't know that they had a buggy system that wasn't quite ready or they did know and went live anyway. Either way it's incompetent management, not incompetent team players. Trust me, all software starts out life buggy and no software is bug free. The skill is finding and fixing the important bugs before release.

All that aside, here was the real hubris moment:
SEBELIUS:... If we had an ideal situation and could have built the product in, you know, a five-year period of time, we probably would have taken five years. But we didn't have five years.
In the real world, you don't get five years to build a website and if it takes you five years that is so not ideal.

After watching the interview, I spent some time on healthcare.gov myself. I looked up health plan rates in 4 states without any great difficulty. Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington had their own websites. Iowa required staying on healthcare.gov. It turns out that the states whose governors and legislators oppose Obamacare got the clunky federal website, while the state governments that are supportive of Obamacare built their own better websites. That seems fair enough.

My whole session took about 40 minutes, or 10 minutes per state, while I continued to watch television. It was no harder than searching for plane tickets. True, I did not attempt to enroll or buy anything. I did have to refresh the page and restart my search once or twice, just like on the airline websites.

The individual health insurance I get now through the small business I work for costs $492.92 a month. There were plans with comparable prices, including many with a lower premium. Frankly, I might do better to get paid in cash rather than benefits and buy on the exchange where I would have actual choices rather than just the plan my small employer picks.

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