For clarification, we wanted to point out that this particular praise for this system only applies to a small portion of the site – the static interface. It has become apparent, unfortunately, that the majority of the back-end was developed with typical procurement mechanisms, and handled much like many other turbulent federal projects. This example points out one small area of success, as we felt there was a notable glimmer of hope in a small part of the implementation of this otherwise problematic application.
Back in June, The Atlantic ran a story about a scrappy little startup working out of a DC garage that completely influenced the course of how the web-facing portions of the Affordable Care Act were to be implemented (link). However, there is more to this story than people realize and give credit for. Sure, a small company on the cusp of the DC tech scene transformed how the static portions of the Healthcare.gov site were created and deployed, but the real credit goes to the heads of Health and Human Service (HHS) who were not only open to, but invited and spurred on this innovation.
This high-level support for taking calculated risks for the sake of innovation is sadly often a rarity in government contracting. More often that not, contracting officers and program managers alike are heavily risk-averse, sometimes for good reason, but at the cost of innovation (and price). The main reason outside contractors are supposedly retained is for their ability to adapt and innovate, but all too often that is stifled by rote adherence to procedure and policy on the part of career-focused government leadership afraid to roil their superiors. However, federal managers should look to this HHS team as a model for future procurements because doing so could revolutionize how government operates and save millions, even billions, of dollars in the process while providing superior services to the citizens of this country. Not to mention, it is an exceptional example of how government should perceive contractors – as an integrated part of their team, not simply as temporary hired help.
Not to say that the program is not without hiccups, but all programs are fraught with issues at some level. As far as I can tell, however, the outcome greatly exceeded the issues encountered. For example, one such benefit allowed the reduction of hosting infrastructure from a planned 32 servers down to only 2. Yes – 2 servers and Amazon S3. Unfortunately, the pundits will declare the technical outages a sign of calamity and cry foul. But I dare you to find any single program of this scale in the private sector that didn’t experience such issues on day one (or even years thereafter). Ultimately, regardless of how one views this law, people should look to how the program to implement the web-based face of this law to tens of millions of people as a success and a model for how government innovation should be implemented and supported – from the top down.