In the IT business there is a phrase for a project that starts late, is underfunded, is poorly defined, experienced requirements changes throughout the development period and then didn’t receive sufficient testing before it is rolled out. The phrase is “Death March,” meaning that it is doomed from the start. As you can imagine, the expression is taken from the infamous Bataan Death March. While nowhere near as horrific as its namesake, individuals working on an IT version of a death march often feel as though they are deliberately made to suffer unnecessarily, even futilely, in a vain attempt to recover a project everyone realizes is beyond salvation. Death march projects are characterized by desperate, 11th hour efforts to salvage a doomed enterprise, with participants asked to work 24/7 and additional resources, financial and human, thrown at the effort in a vain attempt to stem the bloodshed. For those of you who want to understand this phenomenon, I recommend Edward Yourdon’s book, Death March: The Complete Software Developer’s Guide to Surviving ‘Mission Impossible’ Projects.
In hindsight, it is increasingly obvious that the federal government’s project to build the online healthcare website to enroll, qualify, support and service tens of millions of applicants in just a couple of years was doomed from the start. Reports by news outlets across the political spectrum have uncovered a pattern of mismanagement, insufficient oversight, changing requirements, poor communication between contractors and government officials and inadequate testing. A number of sources have reported that delays in writing the regulations for Obamacare resulted in web site functions being left unspecified until spring 2013. As a result, according to a software developer interviewed by the Daily Kos, “. . . that gave the development team six or seven months to build, test, and deploy a complex software application intended for millions of users.”
The Healthcare.Gov debacle is also symptomatic of problems in the way that the federal government organizes and manages large-scale IT projects. The winning contractor for Healthcare.Gov, CGI Federal, was one of dozens of companies who successfully competed in 2007 for what is called an Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity (ID/IQ) contract to provide the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services with IT technology and services. Many winners of ID/IQ contracts only have to meet the most basic thresholds with respect to competencies, availability of personnel and costs. Then each winner competes for task or delivery orders which can vary wildly as to size, cost, duration and complexity. Since every company awarded a basic ID/IQ contract has been judged competent to do all the activities in the statement of work, competition for task orders often become a price “shoot out” with the lowest bidder winning. The specific award to CGI in September 2011 to build the Healthcare.Gov website was such a delivery order.
While there is a temptation to blame the contractor for the problems with the Obamacare website, the actual miscreant is the Obama Administration itself. The administration has relentlessly pursued the strategy of acquiring goods and services through ever-larger ID/IQ contracts. These are inherently difficult to manage and oversee. Even worse, many departments and agencies have adopted the standard of Lowest Price, Technically Acceptable (LPTA) in making contract awards. Many differentiators such as past performance, quality of personnel, innovative ideas and even risk reduction measures, are excluded from consideration. Price is all that matters in the awarding of a task or delivery order. CGI is reported to have experienced a lot of problems in its IT work for the Canadian healthcare system. But under the LPTA standard, were it applied in this instance, these problems might not have even been considered by the source selection authority for Healthcare.Gov. LPTA is described by federal IT contractors as “a race to the bottom.”
The evidence is mounting that the responsibility for the debacle that is Healthcare.Gov rests primarily with the Department of Health and Human Services and, ultimately, the White House. They were late to the starting gate, confused in their guidance and desirous of getting a massive amount of work done on the cheap. What they got instead was a death march. Let this be a lesson to other federal agencies and departments, most notably the Department of Defense.
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