The cost to taxpayers? About $5 million. Given what we were able to produce on that budget, it’s hard to take seriously charges that HealthCare.gov was underfunded.
What start-ups understand but the government often fails to appreciate is that having more money and time can often impede building great technology because it allows people to make things more complex than they need to be. Most federal IT projects continue to bet on methodologies and approaches that have long been discredited for commercial enterprises.
A start-up’s cost to build great software is one-tenth of what it was about 15 years ago. In that time, the federal IT budget has almost tripled, to at least $80 billion
. Why are Americans seeing only incremental improvements? Because federal procurement rules make it difficult for agencies and contractors to change operations.
A number of practices contribute to persistent dysfunction. The government continues to prefer massive, long-term contract vehicles that prevent open competition among our most innovative technology providers. How can the government benefit from the latest practices when it has to choose — as in the case of HealthCare.gov — from among a limited subset of contractors preselected years in advance?
Furthermore, the government continues to select providers based on their ability to produce byzantine proposals rather than letting them compete by rapidly building early prototypes that showcase their ability to build innovative technology.
Recovery.gov succeeded because it acted like a start-up in the face of almost every structural impediment in the federal IT contracting system. That would have been impossible without government officials who were willing to find creative solutions.
The issue is not one of talent. The United States has some of the finest technologists in the world — many of whom work hard to achieve important missions for government. The issue is that this talent is thwarted by rules written for a previous generation.
This status quo cannot hold much longer. The best result that could come from the attention on HealthCare.gov is if Congress seeks to reform how the government procures IT contracts. Americans of all parties want an effective government that costs taxpayers less. Procurement reform would be a win for all of us.