Problems with the federal government’s new health-care Web site have attracted legions of armchair analysts who speak of its problems with “virtualization” and “load testing.” Yet increasingly, they are saying the root cause is not simply a matter of flawed computer code but rather the government’s habit of buying outdated, costly and buggy technology.
The U.S. government spends more than $80 billion a year for information-technology services, yet the resulting systems typically take years to build and often are cumbersome when they launch. While the error messages, long waits and other problems with www.healthcare.gov have been spotlighted by the high-profile nature of its launch and unexpectedly heavy demands on the system, such glitches are common, say those who argue for a nimbler procurement system.
They say most government agencies have a shortage of technical staff and long have outsourced most jobs to big contractors that, while skilled in navigating a byzantine procurement system, are not on the cutting edge of developing user-friendly Web sites.
These companies also sometimes fail to communicate effectively with each other as a major project moves ahead. Dozens of private firms had a role in developing the online insurance exchanges at the core of the health-care program and its Web site, working on contracts that collectively were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, according to a Government Accountability Office report in June.
The result has been particularly stark when compared with the slick, powerful computer systems built for Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns, which in 2008 harnessed the emerging power of social networking and in 2012 relied on aggressive data-mining efforts to identify and turn out voters. For those, the campaign recruited motivated young programmers, often from tech start-ups.
“The wizards from the campaign have no desire to contract with the federal government because it’s a pain in the butt,” said Clay Johnson, a veteran technologist for Democratic campaigns who pushes for procurement reform through his whimsically named start-up, the Department of Better Technology. “Is it possible to be good? Is it possible to do right by the taxpayer in this space? I’m not sure that it is.”
He is one of many Obama supporters hoping to help fix the Web site by drawing on the collective wisdom of software developers, a mostly left-leaning group that have been analyzing healthcare.gov and sharing their thoughts in e-mails, blog posts and exchanges on Reddit.
Among their conclusions: Requiring all users to sign in before surfing choked the system, as did insufficient server capacity. They also noted that the Web site stalls if a single step in the process — such as verifying a user’s identity — is not quickly completed.
Industry officials note that new software often is buggy, even when it is produced by respected tech firms such as Apple and Google. It’s one reason that private companies prefer gradual launches and long periods of testing before starting major marketing pushes. Although it is possible to conduct “load testing” on a site in hopes of determining how it will respond to heavy demand, there is no substitute for the crush of traffic experienced by a popular system on its official launch date.