The biggest lesson for your enterprise from the HealthCare.gov debacle

  • 25-Oct-2013

By now you've probably read quite a bit about the manifold problems behind the US Government's largely failed launch of HealthCare.gov. If you haven't, here's a quick summary: delayed funding; delayed procurement; rushed development by multiple contractors; poor program coordination; insufficient and late QA; severe problems not bubbling up to decision-makers; lack of accountability; and so on.

Whatever your opinions about Obamacare, no one can deny that this is a disaster, most of all for uninsured people trying to participate.

Reactions among tech people have varied. Some developers have been sympathetic, while others are engaging in I-told-you-so, but I'll guess that many are thinking along the lines of, "Now maybe people will come to understand how difficult it is to do this stuff..."

And perhaps there's some silver-lining truth to that: the whole episode has enlightened at a minimum the chattering classes, and probably the person-on-the-street, about how huge tech projects can go wrong. Some long-overdue federal technology procurement reform might result as well.

In any case, there is one clear lesson for your enterprise.

The Lesson

Execution aside, let's acknowledge that the specifications for HealthCare.gov were extraordinarily complex.

In fact, they hit the web application trifecta, in having to...

  1. Distill a highly complicated customer journey on the front end into a usable experience
  2. Apply a diverse set of business rules to back-end transactions, involving myriad external partners
  3. Support huge volumes of traffic, including intense spikes

Any one of these requirements demands quite specialized expertise. Two of those will put a web application project at high risk. All three, and you have to be very, very good (and possibly lucky) to pull it off. Of course, others have done it. Like, say, Amazon. Can your organization match their heft?

I believe the key lesson here for web and IT leaders is: be forthright with your colleagues. If something is hard, tell them early and often, but educate them as much as possible, rather than just pushing them off. And for business leaders, remember that the most magical experiences are the most difficult to create.

On the plus side, the term HealthCare.gov could usefully enter into common vernacular, maybe even as a verb. So the next time someone hands you an impossible project, you can reply, "This has all the makings of a HealthCare.gov," or even, "We need two more weeks of QA or this is going to HealthCare.gov on us." (I was thinking something along those lines this morning, when a security patch caused some cron jobs to go all HealthCare.gov on our webserver CPUs, taking down the RSG website for ten minutes.)

So, greater understanding could indeed give this whole episode a silver lining -- at least for the tech world -- after all...

P.S. If you're looking to align your business and tech teams around a significant digital workplace or digital marketing technology effort, and you want some outside advice, drop us a line.