First, I do not work for HHS nor am I a tech "geek", so I don't have any inside information on what actually went on between HHS and its web contractors that caused or contributed to the HealthCare.gov problems. But I do work in government and I do have experience with government contractors, and from that experience I do see some similarities between the problems I have seen with government contracting and the problems with the ACA HHS contracting that are now being exposed. Therefore, I thought I would share some of my experiences and relate them to what might be behind the ACA web problems.
So if you're interested in some inside info on the flawed world of government contracting and the politically appointed Bureaucrats in government who support it, join me after the jump /.
First of all the amount of government contracting has exploded in recent years. It used to be that the hiring of government contractors was limited to projects of short duration where there were not sufficient qualified government employees and where it did not make sense to hire and train new permanent employees for projects lasting only a few months. Now however, thanks in large part to the Republicans zeal for austerity, their disdain for government workers and their belief that the private sector can always do a better job, many of the jobs performed by public employees are now going to private contractors leaving the remaining public employees as middle-men tasked with overseeing and managing contractors. The logic being that the private contractor can do the work cheaper than the public employee because you don't have to pay for retirement, health insurance and other benefits. But such logic doesn't take into account the fact that the private sector is profit driven and the fact that often the public employee overseeing the contractor has to revise or re-do the contractor's work meaning you're paying two people to do the work formally done by one.
Sorry to all those private contractors out there, but I had to get that out of my system. As I've already disclosed, I am a government pubic employee and admittedly have a negative opinion about the rise in government contracting, since I've seen it result in public employees getting laid off or open positions not getting filled. However, I will do my best to set my opinions aside and just give you the facts about my government contracting experiences.
My first experience involves getting a private contractor with personnel who have adequate qualifications (or just basic competency) to perform the work. In this instance the work involves highly complex geo-technical environmental engineering that admittedly was beyond my engineering capabilities. The task went to a "stand-by" private contractor ("stand-by" contractors are firms that are awarded government contracts to perform work on an "as-needed" basis) selected by management. The selected firm did not have an engineer with adequate knowledge of geo-technical engineering, so they sub-contracted with another private firm for the geo-technical work. BTW, anytime you sub-contract, you increase the cost by around 10% since the sub-contractor also has to make a profit.
Now the type of geo-technical engineering we are talking about involved reviewing an application for an environmental permit by a private company for a chemical containment structure. The application contained, among other things, a design for the structure and an analysis to justify the company's claim that it will remain stable under seismic conditions. This is a highly specified field, and while I had limited knowledge in it, I did know that there were only a handful of qualified experts available, and I knew who they were. The company who submitted an application for a Permit to build this structure, an application our governmental agency was tasked with reviewing to determine that the structure has been properly engineered (such as to withstand an earthquake), had hired one of these experts, arguably the best of the small group. But the combination of his knowledge in the seismic field, his extreme self-confidence (he was full of himself), and the fact that he was obviously biased, working for the company that wanted to build this containment structure at the lowest possible cost, I couldn't shake the feeling that I was being snowed.
The remaining experts I knew of existed as individual professional engineers in the private sector and one in the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But the professional engineer we got through the sub-contractor was not one of these experts. While this person held a doctorate in geo-science and seemed very knowledgeable in matters of soil properties, I soon discovered that in certain critical aspects of seismic engineering pertaining to this proposed containment structure, he knew less kowledge than I did, and far less than the company's expert, to the point where I started to feel that he was just as snowed by the guy as I was.
So the government contractor procurement process does not allow you to pick the experts you want, so you don't always get the most competent people. Sure you can establish minimum qualifications for the expert you are seeking, but the government contract laws are structured in a way that does not allow you to establish a specialized set of qualifications that only one or a few experts can met. You have to keep your qualifications general enough to allow a significant number of contractors to participate in the process. Then when it comes to awarding a contract, who gets it is most often related to costs not expertise, and when the contractor uses a sub-contracted expert, as in this case, you have no control at all over who that "so called" expert is.
Getting to the point of this story (finally) the government contracting process doesn't always result in getting the best and the brightest experts you need to get the job done properly. While I can't prove that this happened in the case of the building of the HealthCare.gov web site because I was not inside that process, there are signs which suggest that the Federal government might of ended up with a web contractor of inadequate expertise which contributed to the failed roll out. One sign that this may be the case is that news reports now say that the government has gone out to contract with the "best and brightest" in the web field (e.g., Google, Yahoo, etc.) to fix the failed web site, which leads to the obvious conclusion that they did not hire the "best and brightest" to build it.
This second story is about the relationship between government contractors, high ranking government bureaucrats who oversee them and DEADLINES. Its sort of an "Emperor's New Close" type story in that no one wants to tell the "Emperor" or Head Haunch-o that more time is needed if the job is to be done right. It deals with the project discussed in Story #1 where a government contractor was tasked with reviewing an permit application for a chemical containment structure (a task which used to be performed by government employees like me). Because of the complexity of the structure's design, the application consisted of thousands of pages of technical drawings and design details, as well as detailed environmental evaluations of the design. The idea was for the contractor to review the application and for government staff (me) to review the contractor's review, in order to make sure the application is technically adequate for public review. While it sounds like this creates a situation for a thorough review of the application, such a review is only possible if high level government managers are interested in a thorough review. However, in this case they were far more interested in completing the review quickly before the deadline, so they could tell the Grand Pu-Ba that the project was ready for public review and receive his "pat-on-the-back.
Throughout the project, the "Middle Manager" (the guy looking to impress the big cheese by getting the review done quickly) would put unreasonable deadlines on the government contractor for completing review of each piece of the application. Deadlines which were arbitrary and which were not based on the size and complexity of the document to be reviewed. Furthermore, when the contractor pointed out flaws in the Company's application, the "Middle Manager" would sometimes downplay there importance and brush them off. Not because they weren't real flaws in the unit's design in some cases, but because they would take too long to fix. So as time went on the contractor became more and more aware that the "Middle Manager" did not want to hear about any flaws, he simply wanted the contractor to say the application was acceptable, complete and ready for public scrutiny, regardless of its content.
To compound the problem, the "Middle Manager" gave even less time for government staff (me and my team) to review the contractor's work and double check the technical adequacy of the application. This left staff with two choices, either do a quick inadequate review and meet the deadlines or perform a thorough review pointing out each and every flaw and keep missing deadlines. Initially I opted for the latter option. The fact that staff was taking longer then the "Middle Manager" arbitrarily was allowing and pointing out flaws in the application he did not want to hear about, quickly lead to a situation where staff had to face the "Wrath-of-Kahn" (the"Middle Manager") on a regular basis. Rather than facing such wrath, staff, except for me, decided to simply tell the "Middle Manager" that everything was fine and the application ready for the public, without really reviewing any of it. However, I still plodded along doing the thorough technical review I felt the public expected me to do, and which as a P.E. I felt I was ethically bound to do. When the "Middle Manager" finally had enough of the added time I was taking and of all the flaws I was pointing out, he relieved me of reviewing all but a small portion of the application, and handed the remainder over to his "right-hand-man" who had no problem with "blessing" the contractor's work and the application without really reviewing it. So now we are left with what I know is a technically flawed application being provided for public review which is likely to crash and burn soon after its published and make the government look incompetent. Sound familiar?
All because a "Middle Manager" decided there was no way in hell he was going to ask the "Grand Pu-Ba" to extend his deadline to provide adequate time for a more thorough review of the application. Instead, he wrongly decided (in my view) to meet the Pu-Ba's deadline and present a flawed application, crossing his fingers and burying his head in the sand, in hopes that nothing would go wrong.
I can't help but think that something very similar happened with the roll out of the HealthCare.gov web site. Somewhere between the low level programmers who were building the site and President Obama was a "Middle Manager" (or group of "Middle Managers") who on October 1 had their fingers crossed and their heads buried in the sand. This seems likely to me since I don't think the President would have allowed the site to go live on October 1 if he were told that there was a good chance it would crash and burn. It also seems likely since E-mails from low level programmers have come to light warning their superiors of the flaws in the site before the October 1 roll-out.
So it seems entirely plausible to me that some "Middle Manager" (or group of "Middle Managers"), put pressure on programmers to get the site ready on time, ignored all the warnings of potential problems from programmers, and told those above him/her (or them), including President Obama, that the site was "fired up and ready to go". Why would he/she (or they) decide to lie about the site's readiness? I can only speculate, but two reasons come to mind that might have contributed to such a decision.
First, the "Middle Manager(s)" were undoubtedly aware of the political ramifications of having to delay the roll-out of the web site. Republicans would have likely pounced and pushed hard to have the mandate deadline extended. And the President would have been angry and rightly so. The "Middle Manager(s)" could have felt that the President would go looking for someone down the chain who was responsible for the delay and possibly fired he/she or them.
Second, the "Middle Manager(s)" were likely not all that familiar with web site development and did not understand the seriousness of the flaws being pointed out by the low level programmers. They probably thought that they were small glitches which could be fixed quickly and painlessly after the site went on-line.
Who that "Middle Manager(s)" is/are is anybody's guess (feel free to speculate in comments). But I'm sure a good journalist could follow the e-mail trail from the programmers and find out who ignored their warnings.
Well those are my stories and how I think the failure of the HealthCare.gov web site was allowed to occur.
THANKS FOR READING!