Evan Burfield is the co-founder of 1776, an incubator platform for start-ups in education, health, energy and smart cities. He founded and, from 2006 to 2011, was the chief executive of Synteractive, one of the contractors that built federal Web sites such as Recovery.gov and Treasury.gov.
HealthCare.gov was launched Oct. 1 with bugs that made it impossible for many Americans to purchase insurance. Although these problems are the focus of many tirades and jokes
, it’s not a disaster — in a few months the site will work as expected.
Moreover, in the range of federal IT debacles, HealthCare.gov doesn’t come anywhere close to the worst. Over the past five years, agencies including the Justice Department have had to scrap software projects that cost far more than the $70 million to $125 million (at least) reportedly spent on HealthCare.gov. In 2010, Justice’s Litigation Case Management System was canceled after four years of development because it was going to cost an additional $193 million to make it usable. But HealthCare.gov’s issues remain troubling, and the government can still learn from the site’s failures.
Government Web sites don’t have to be costly to handle extreme amounts of data and work well. In June 2009, the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board searched for a team to build a Web site that would enable Americans to understand how the $900 billion in Recovery Act money was being spent. Numerous data sets would have to be collected from more than 100,000 organizations nationwide and then transformed into something meaningful.
The digital agency I led at the time, Synteractive, was geared toward building Web software for start-ups and businesses. We found a partner, Smartronix, to help us navigate the federal IT world and spent two weeks cranking out a proposal. Figuring that we didn’t have much chance of winning, we included all sorts of ideas that we thought would be powerful but could be difficult to bring to fruition. We proposed making the primary user experience an interactive map, making all of the data accessible via open standards for developers, and hosting the entire site in the “public cloud.” Such things had never been done before in government work at that scale or level of visibility.
After the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board gave us the green light, we had less than four months to create the Web site. The back-end data were collected by a separate team, but we had to figure out everything else. With our start-up experience, our approach was to keep the team small and work side-by-side with government officials to shorten the decision-making loops. Simplicity was the mantra for everyone involved.
After Recovery.gov was unveiled, critics pointed out errors in the first set of data reported by funding recipients — but that was the entire point. By giving citizens direct access to the raw data on where their money was going, they could hold both the government and the recipients accountable. The data became better and better each cycle. Newsweek eventually referred to the site as “perhaps the clearest, richest interactive database ever produced by the American bureaucracy.”
Because Recovery.gov was built on a public cloud, it was able to respond to demand as needed. Even when a major outage on the cloud crashed other sites, Recovery.gov didn’t go down.