October 16, 2013
To paraphrase the late Senator Everett Dirksen, “a million here and a million there, and pretty soon you’re talking real money”. Well folks, how does $634,320,919 grab you? Some of you may be saying, “Gee, that sounds like a lot of money. Who and whatever did someone pay that much money for?” Unfortunately, the answer is YOU, and you just bought a website that doesn’t work. Before you go checking your latest VISA statement let me clarify. That mind boggling figure is the bill we just collectively received for the new Obamacare website that was to serve as the portal to the healthcare system of a minority of the country’s dreams.
To be fair, implementing a bill with 2,700 pages is a big job, and apparently building a websiteto front end the whole thing was just a little bit more difficult than anyone envisioned. Isn’t this always the way that projects like this go? The good folks in government procurement put the project out for bid and the winning firm, Montreal-based CGI Federal, said they could build the whole thing for a measly $93.7 million (apparently e-commerce experience was found wanting here in the states). Sure that number must have seemed kind of high—Facebook operated for six years before their website costs eclipsed the $600 million mark—but maybe our purchasing folks thought they were talking Canadian dollars. Plus CGI had the benefit of “extensive government” experience, and who among us wouldn’t have found that to be a glowing endorsement of their expertise? Anyway, it looks like once they started white boarding, the whole thing it turned out to be a little more complex than they envisioned. A few change orders later they’re bringing that baby home at just under 600% over budget. Sure, this figure is a little higher than the $445 million they give to National Public Broadcasting every year to have Elmo teach your kids a new meaning for “tickle me”, but since it was for such a good cause I think we were all willing to swallow that price tag as long as it actually worked.
Unfortunately, “deliver a working system” must have been left out of the Statement of Work, and so on the morning of October 1, people from all over the country began tapping away on their keyboards, with all the fervor of kids opening presents on Christmas morning and dreams of subsidized premiums dancing in their heads, only to receive a range of gifts that included 404 errors, site unavailable notices and the infamous—but colorful—rainbow wheel of death. Apparently, this sub-par level of performance caught a few folks on the government payroll by surprise. According to his press secretary, the President was so confident it would work that he hasn’t even bothered to use it, and it was left to Congresswoman Deborah Wasserman-Schultz to clarify things for us when she explained that the system was designed to only support 50,000 simultaneous users. You know, the same amount of folks in the country who access Google from 3:00-3:01 am on Christmas Eve. But, the Congresswoman buoyed the somewhat diminished expectations of the site’s potential users when she went on to explain that this was actually a good thing since it demonstrated the pent-up demand for people to sign up. In other words, “shut up and wait”.
This debacle—I mean roll-out—has some backseat coders weighing in on what we’ve received for our $630 million, and many have been, somewhat, less than kind. Terms and phrases like “fatally flawed” and “I’d be embarrassed to show this to anyone” have been tossed about, and one even commented that, “a bunch of guys who build porno websites could have done a better job”. The last comment, while somewhat hyperbolic, would offer frustrated users something to do while they sitting through the system’s interminably long wait times. Let’s face it, paying over half a billion dollars for a non-functioning web site is going open you up to a little criticism.
It is simply astonishing that anything could cost this much and suck this bad. Does anyone doubt that you could take the team behind Chase.com’s security, the e-shopping experts at Amazon and combine them with the infrastructure of Softlayer and delivered a product that cost a tad less than this monument to government ineptitude and actually worked? Folks this isn’t our first time at the rodeo, and when we include things like the new flaming NSA data center and $600 hammers for the Army it’s obvious that the government procurement process is broken. Whether you agree or disagree with government programs, the private sector is a more effective problem solver than the Federal bureaucracy. At the very least, if the Feds had just laid out the goals and stopped trying to write the specs, real solutions providers could have addressed the now obvious data center and hosting deficiencies. Of course, this would be the logical approach to the issue and that doesn’t fly within the Beltway. So how will they fix problems of the exchanges—by throwing more money at them of course.