Blame it on IT
By John Clayton
Recent events compel me to say something about the debacle (to use an Obama administration word) of the healthcare rollout. The primary problems are in the implementation of the computer system, which has to support a complex process that begins with a website and ends with a data feed to the insurance companies that are actually issuing the health insurance policies. Debacle is a polite word for what has happened so far. There is much to suggest that the IT folks are to blame.
I used to work in Information Technology (IT), beginning way back when it was known as Data Processing, and while I have never worked on anything as massive as this endeavor, that experience and a little common sense help to understand how it all went wrong. Put simply, you can’t build anything complex anywhere, and not just in the digital world, and have it come out right, if you don’t have someone who can authoritatively tell you what it’s supposed to look like and what it is supposed to do. This is an extreme simplification, but I think it is apt.
As a fan of universal healthcare, and one who admires those who have fought for it more than I would ever admire those who have fought against it, the failure is disappointing. I’ve read a number of discussions of the problems in newspapers both for and against universal healthcare as it is presently being attempted, and what I have read only reinforces this conclusion. What is aggravating is that the mistakes are fundamental lessons that no one needs to learn over again, and certainly not on such a prominent scale. I am also disturbed by the suggestion that the problems are due to the incompetence of the IT designers and developers. Some of them may well have been, I have no way of knowing that, but that’s not where the problems started.
A recent article in the Washington Post presents a story of confusion at the top, and a distribution of accountability for implementing the systems, as opposed to having a clear leader with authority to make it all happen. There is no question that a hostile political environment fraught with powerful policymakers bound and determined to make the Affordable Care Act fail in one way or the other was a factor, so perhaps you could say some errors were forced errors, like in tennis, but not nearly all of them.
According to the Post story, the administration wanted the people who successfully worked to get the legislation through Congress to manage implementation. This to me is the equivalent of a large company, whose marketing and sales department has landed a big account, asking the marketing and sales department to mastermind implementation. This isn’t going to work, and I don’t think it would happen at Amazon.
When the requirements kept changing late in the game, I’m sure the developers looked for shortcuts and hoped everything would work together like magic, which it never does. The due date wasn’t going to change for anyone or anything.
Perhaps bringing in more IT folks to fix it all up (a Tech Surge—Please) will make it all right. None of these big contracting companies are going to blast the government, of course; that’s bad for future business.
I’m sure we’re not out of the woods yet, as they add more and more troops to the effort. Decades ago, Frederick P. Brooks in the classic, The Mythical Man-Month, discussed the fallacy of shortening deadlines by adding more programming resources. In fact, he probably described almost everything that went wrong here, for what that’s worth.
In this case, however, I understand everything will be peachy at the end of the month.