A government IT program crashed three days after its launch, failing under the weight of about three-times the expected number of applications.
Sounds familiar, right? But this wasn’t HealthCare.gov. It was 2009, and the government had rolled out Cash for Clunkers to inject new life in the auto industry and encourage people to trade in their old cars for more fuel-efficient ones.
As Vivek Kundra, the former U.S. chief information officer, recalled in a 2011 paper, federal technology officials spent a month riding “a roller coaster of unplanned outages and service disruptions.”
That troubled IT program became the inspiration for Kundra’s “cloud-first” program, an effort to move as many government programs to the cloud — or Web-based infrastructure — as possible. After a 14-hour day of working on the site, he wrote that he was convinced — as he roamed the District at 4 a.m. — that more flexible cloud computing systems would have allowed the site to respond to rising demand.
Fast forward four years and government officials, contracting executives and Capitol Hill find themselves mired in similar issues. Many are pointing fingers — at an outdated acquisition system that wouldn’t work in the commercial world, at a political divide that turns common bugs into a capital error and at companies that are overpaid and that under-deliver.
There may be a nugget of truth in all of these complaints, but the real story of why some contractor-developed projects fail can be far more complex.
What’s ignored is that the government is often very successful at managing massive amounts of information. The National Security Agency — lately, to its detriment — is hugely effective at vacuuming up personal data; the IRS reliably hosts thousands of people filing electronics tax returns.
Contractors have helped the government accomplish some of its most difficult tasks, from developing a rover that can explore Mars to building drones for wars abroad.
CGI Federal, one of the main contractors for HealthCare.gov, has had its own successes. Earl E. Devaney, tasked by President Obama with overseeing federal stimulus spending in 2009, said last week that CGI successfully — and quickly — built an online data collection system that fed stimulus data to Recovery.gov.
“When we went live on October 10, 2009, it was a different story than what we’re seeing with HealthCare.gov,” Devaney said.
Still there are plenty of examples of programs that haven’t worked, and HealthCare.gov is undeniably a black eye for the technology contracting community, much of which is clustered around the D.C. area.
“There’s no question that it is creating a negative impression that has to be countered,” said Stan Soloway, who heads the Professional Services Council, an industry group.
Still, he pointed to the structural issues that contributed to the problem.
Federal contractors live by a very different schedule than commercial vendors. Perhaps the most obvious illustration is that CGI Federal’s key to winning this bid was a 2007 contract award.
The company won a spot on a sprawling contracting program years before receiving an order to build an essential part of HealthCare.gov.
“We’re unsure a contract in 2007 was necessarily the best vehicle,” said Trey Hodgkins of industry group TechAmerica. “We believe it would normally have been let as ... a full and open competition.”
But that’s just one of the nuances of contracting, which increasingly relies on these contract vehicles — often compared to hunting licenses because they give the contractor the ability to pursue future work. Agencies have turned to these contracts to give them more flexibility on what they actually buy and to make it easier and cheaper to winnow a pool of qualified bidders to a single award.
HealthCare.gov was also haunted by significant political strife. Even as recently as last month, Republicans sought to defund the new health care law.
“It’s a high wire, no net,” said Don Rainey, an investor at Grotech Ventures. “I don’t envy them in that regard.”
Members of Congress have pointed to successful commercial sites that encounter large volumes of users. Rep. Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.), whose district includes much of the San Francisco Bay area, said at a recent hearing that blaming high traffic volume is “kind of a lame excuse.
“Amazon and eBay don’t crash the week before Christmas, and ProFlowers doesn’t crash on Valentine’s Day,” she chided contracting executives.
But even commercial companies face problems. At a conference last week, Steven VanRoekel , the U.S. chief information officer, recounted that in his nearly two decades at Microsoft, he rolled out several buggy products.
“I actually had to recall a product once,” he said. “Even in large, multinational companies, this stuff happens.”
Devaney, who spent more than four decades in government, said it’s simplistic to call HealthCare.gov a Web site, given that it has to be interoperable with a whole variety of existing agency databases. “Some of the systems go back to George Washington,” he quipped.
Experts in commercial ventures suggested the government might have been better off using an incremental approach, which officials such as Kundra have tried to push in the past.
“To put up a Web site that hundreds of thousands or millions of people will use in short order is a massive undertaking,” Rainey said. “The expectations were probably unrealistic, but it might have been better to start with a limited set of states and then work out the bugs.”
Typically, successful projects also have fixed requirements, experts say.
“You’d love to say that private companies always get it right, but they run into problems, too,” said Frank Williams, the chief executive of Evolent Health and former chief executive of the Advisory Board Co. “Experienced developers make sure the scope of the project is defined up front.”
CGI said in a statement that it continues to deploy experts and technology to improve the site. The project is “challenging, unprecedented and complex,” the company said.
Federal officials said in hearings last week that they have brought in technology experts to fix a whole range of issues with the system.
Industry onlookers said they expect contractors to recover.
“It is positively never just the contractors’ fault,” said George A. Price Jr., senior equity research analyst for aerospace, defense and government services at BB&T Capital Markets. “There’s a lot of negative headlines, but eventually this gets fixed.”
Steven Overly contributed to this report.