I’ve been covering the ongoing issues with the Obamacare website in the days since its glitch-filled launch, which you can read here, here and here.  From day one, the Obama administration has spun the problems as a good thing, blaming all the site’s technical misfires entirely on high traffic volume – demand that it claims was beyond its expectations.

As I’ve written in all of my posts on the subject, I’ve been highly skeptical of that claim and have provided numerous citations, as well as some of my own commentary, to support such skepticism.  I ended one of those posts by writing, “While some media outlets have focused on the long wait times, very few are actually breaking down the glitches and testing the administration’s claims that volume is solely to blame.”

Well, that has certainly changed since I wrote it.

Even technology blogs have finally jumped into the mix to start breaking down some of the technical issues, many with headlines like:

To start, I caution on that reported $634 million figure above.  In looking at the source cited in the article, it appears to me that it could contain additional work that was not necessarily directly connected to the Obamacare website, as well as projects awarded to the same contractor (CGI Federal) before Obamacare was passed into law.

There were actually multiple contractors involved in the development of the website; CGI Federal is but one of those, having reportedly developed components of the website’s backend.  The NY Times recently reported that “CGI had received $88 million for work on the federal exchange through March, while Quality Software Services [the company operating a “data services hub” for the government] had received $55 million for work on the data hub.”

And we learned from the Washington Post yesterday that a firm called Development Seed designed the front-end component that handles the screens you see when you click on the “Learn More” link.

Before large contractors took over, a small firm called Development Seed laid much of the groundwork for the site that millions of Americans are trying to access today. It spent four months, starting in March, as a government sub-contractor, building the version of HealthCare.Gov that launched in June. Their work remains the home page of the newly launched Web site.

Development Seed is by no means the entire force behind the massive Web site. A bigger company, CGI Federal, developed the back-end functions where people create accounts and find out if they’re eligible for coverage. CGI has declined requests for comment.

Some of the likely communication and testing challenges between some of those contractors were aptly covered by David Auerbach at Slate.

Using multiple contractors for different components on a project of this size and scope is not an unusual practice.  It makes a project more challenging, but when carefully coordinated and tested collaboratively, a project with multiple contractors can succeed.  But much of that success hinges upon good planning, clear requirements and thorough testing, among other things.  As is a common saying on technology projects, “Garbage in, garbage out.”

And as we’ve seen from multiple reports, it’s unclear whether any of that planning was anywhere near adequate.  As the entity defining the project, I think the government needs to bear some of the responsibility here.

Where was the planning?

According to an article cited in a post I wrote the other day, participating insurers and others apparently warned administration officials before the site’s rollout that it was experiencing issues.  From the Washington Post:

Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.), who played a key role in passing the health-care law and has worked on its implementation, said he told White House officials early this summer he had been hearing from insurers that the online system had flaws.

“Nothing I told them ever surprised them,” Andrews said in an interview. “The White House has acknowledged all along something this massive was going to have implementation problems.”

Two allies of the administration, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the controversy surrounding the rollout, said they approached White House officials this year to raise concerns that the federal exchange was not ready to launch. In both cases, Obama officials assured them there was no cause for alarm.

Robert Laszewski, a health-care consultant with clients in the insurance industry, said insurers were complaining loudly that the site, www.healthcare.gov, was not working smoothly during frequent teleconferences with officials at the Department of Health and Human Services before the exchange’s launch and afterward. “People were pulling out their hair,” he said.

A report in Forbes also commented on the issue of testing (among several other issues), saying, “It has become abundantly clear that the site was never stress-tested under anything like the type of load it is encountering.”  This is an issue I addressed in my skepticism of the administration’s claims that it wasn’t prepared for such high volume.  The administration had to have known how many people it was hoping would sign up through the exchanges and the Obamacare website, so why weren’t volume issues discovered long before launch?

And two days ago, I pointed out that the administration apparently didn’t have important documentation reviewed and disseminated prior to the website’s launch, highlighting yet more of the woefully inadequate planning.

Contractors of course bear responsibility for their performance on this project.  But the administration should be just as much to blame.  The launch of the Obamacare website seems to have been driven by hard deadlines, without equal consideration for well thought out details and planning important to its success, including making sure that end users had what they needed to help make it a success.  Meanwhile, whatever the true costs in the end, it is the taxpayers who will bear the brunt of any of its failures.

Remember, we had to pass the law to find out what was in it.  Planning for the website to support the law seems to have been governed in much the same way.  Just get the site launched, we’ll worry about those pesky glitches later.

As Professor Jacobson wrote earlier today, this administration hasn’t seemed concerned about the site’s readiness, only that it exists.


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