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Are Antiquated Procurement Processes Responsible for Healthcare.gov Problems?

Published: October 30, 2013

Acquisition ReformHHSHealth CareHealth IT

The entire nation is watching the fallout from a much anticipated website launch that performed poorly out of the gate. As would be expected, finger-pointing abounds. Some blame the contractor(s). Some blame HHS. Explanations for the technical glitches range from the unexpected volume of initial registrants, to numerous connections to legacy backend systems at other agencies. Nevertheless, a small cadre of industry experts is pointing to the Healthcare.gov debacle as continued evidence that antiquated federal procurement processes fail to provide the best possible method for acquiring and developing cutting-edge IT solutions.

Some argue that large, seasoned government contractors, while well versed at navigating the cumbersome federal procurement process, are not on the leading-edge of website development.  A recent Washington Post article contrasted the Healthcare.gov site with the modern, robust computer systems that have defined President Obama’s campaign efforts, using analytics to target voters and employing the power of social media.   Clay Johnson, proponent for IT procurement reform and owner of the company called Department of Better Technology, stated that the campaign technologists “have no desire to contract with the federal government because it’s a pain in the butt.”

Fifty-five companies played a role in developing the Healthcare.gov website, according to a recent NPR blog on the subject, and $394 million was obligated between FY2010 and March 31, 2013.  Additionally, no single contractor was in charge.  HHS took on the role as general contractor to oversee the project. 

Sanjiv Augustine, president of  LitheSpeed LLC, a training and software development company in Washington, believes that’s no way to build software, but federal rules require that the work be split up among contractors to prevent over charging by contractors.  He believes software is best designed by small teams and that websites work best when they are implemented in stages.

Trey Hodgkins, vice president for senior vice president of global public sector at TechAmerica, agrees.  Not only does he believe IT procurement processes are outdated, but that the IT funding process also hinders federal technology projects.  "We're using horse-and-buggy era funding processes to fund leading-edge technology. It can't keep pace. It's arcane and has a three-to-five year lead-time," Hodgkins said during an Oct. 28th teleconference with Federal Computer Week.

Mistakes with the Healthcare.gov project could serve as a catalyst for IT procurement and funding reform to give agencies more efficient and effective ways to fulfill IT needs.  Additionally, making the procurement process easier might entice cutting-edge commercial IT companies to the federal marketplace.