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Five Reasons Obama and HHS Are to Blame for Healthcare.gov

By Stephan Hilbelink

By now, it's clear to everyone that the launch of the Affordable Care Act has been a disaster. What's less clear is why.

During a September 24 congressional hearing about the implementation of Healthcare.gov, government contractors hired to translate the ACA into a workable website continually shifted blame from themselves to the Obama administration and the Health and Human Services Department. While the contractors themselves are clearly at fault too - Healthcare.gov is a web development disaster - from the standpoint of a website developer here are five key reasons why the Obama administration should get the majority of the blame.

The first is testing. Working out the kinks on this site should have started on October 1, 2012 at the latest, not two weeks before the website's launch. With a website of Healthcare.gov's magnitude, every possible problem scenario should have been worked through in advance. When this is not done, the client looks like a fool - and well they should. Healthcare.gov was apparently released as an Alpha test, the first of four stages before a website should be released. Those stages are Alpha, Beta, Detail and Destruction/Break testing - when the creators try to break the system. These should all occur before final release. The vendors and the White House and HHS are equally responsible for this mistake.

Then there's "Scope Creep." Scope creep refers to the requirements that come from a client after a contractor and client work out an initial budget and have signed the proposal. The price ceiling for Healthcare.gov has more than doubled, with the only explanation being scope creep. Clients think that they can add or change anything they want for the same price, but that's not how web development works. Clients are charged for every additional change or add-on they request. The term for this charge is sometimes called the PITA tax - pain in the ... you know. Scope creep is the sole fault of the White House and HHS, and it kills a majority of projects.

Next there's communication. A statement made last week by CGI Group's Cheryl Campbell gave a possible glimpse at a dysfunctional cycle of communication with the White House and HHS. She said, "It is not our position to tell our client [the U.S. Government] to go live or not go live." As a vendor and as a responsible business, yes, you do have the position to tell your clients what they need to know and recommend what they do. Customers depend on contractors for their expertise to make a functional final product. If the project needs to be delayed or falls behind schedule, the contractor needs to say so. As for the client, if their contractor isn't being honest or forthcoming about deadlines or functionality issues, then the client needs to ask. Communication is a two-way street and both sides seem to be at fault.

Another glaring issue is the timeline for the site. Despite the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2009, the contracts related to Healthcare.gov were not awarded until 2011 and the site requirements were not completed until March, 2013.

Finally, picking the right contractor to create a website like this is fundamentally important. CGI, the Canadian contractor that was chosen for healthcare.gov, was fired in 2012 by the province of Ontario over its inability to make a similar website for $46 million. Shopping for the right contractor is very important for not only a working relationship, but also for the contractor's ability to do the job correctly. This was the responsibility of the White House and HHS.

A client can't simply ask for a website and have it happen instantly, especially not one of Healthcare.gov's magnitude. Private sector software companies will gladly push back their release dates to make sure a good product is released. That's preferable to the fallout that is sure to come when CNET and other tech sites tear a new, dysfunctional product apart.

No one should ever push for a project to be released before it has been properly assembled and tested. Too many clients look at building a website like buying clothing at a department store, but the two couldn't be more different. A client needs to be involved with every step of a website's development. If they aren't, digital nightmares like this one occur.

The White House and HHS could have prevented this. Instead their spin doctors are working to push the blame onto the website developers. Are the developers faultless? Not at all. They should have been more up front and blunt with the president and HHS. But a contractor's fault is minor compared to a lack of oversight and responsibility by a client. This rests squarely on the shoulders of our president and his administration.

Stephan Hilbelink is a web designer and developer with the Family Research Council. He has worked in website design and development for 17 years.

(AP Photo)

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