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 Many are pointing fingers — at an outdated acquisition system that wouldn’t work in the commercial world, at a political divide that turns common bugs into a capital error and at companies that are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.