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More is less: Obamacare's 'tech surge' adds manpower to an already-bloated project

More is less: Obamacare's 'tech surge' adds manpower to an already-bloated project


With 55 contractors already on the case, does really need more people?

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tech surge by TC watermark
tech surge by TC watermark

Earlier this week, President Barack Obama called for a "tech surge" to fix the problems with, the barely functional marketplace where Americans are supposed to buy health insurance under the Affordable Care Act (ACA). The administration is being opaque about exactly how many new employees equate to a "surge," but details are slowly leaking out. And while the tech surge does sound like a substantial effort, it may also be complicating an already messy situation.

The surge is adding workers at all levels. The contractors that built are putting more employees on the project, and the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) brought in Jeff Zients, the former acting director of the Office of Management and Budget who has experience rescuing government websites, to manage the project.

The administration has also alluded to bringing in additional help from elsewhere in government and industry, including a "handful" of Presidential Innovation Fellows. HHS has also created "alpha teams" made up of techies to interface between the government, contractors, and private insurers that are also hooked into the back end. In addition, USA Today reports that Verizon’s enterprise services division has also been tapped to help.

The phrase "tech surge" is odd

"Nobody's more mad about it than me, that the website isn't working as well as it should, which means it's going to get fixed," Obama said during a press conference earlier this week.

It does seem like the administration is committed to fixing the website — especially since Obama’s critics are crowing at its failures. But the phrase "tech surge" is a little odd. It echoes rhetoric about ground troops in Iraq, which doesn’t seem to be the right image; it also evokes the idea of an electrical surge, which is usually bad for technology.

It’s also odd because manpower was never an issue. The site was reportedly built by 55 different companies. CGI Federal, one of the prime contractors, has more than 300 people dedicated to the project.

During a Congressional hearing today, four of the primary contractors (CGI Federal, QSSI, Serco, and Equifax) testified that the parts of the site they built worked perfectly in isolation — it was only when they were all meshed together on October 1st that things started to go wrong.

Given the surfeit of workers already dedicated to the project, and the confusion caused by coordinating between them, is a "surge" of new labor really what needs?

Manpower was never an issue

Kendall Clark, CEO of Clark & Parsia, a software firm that handles federal contracts, says that sometimes adding more programmers can speed up a project, if the work is managed well. (Although he was skeptical that Zients and Verizon could contribute much: "Have you ever used a Verizon web app? OMG so awful!") But he believes the surge may be aimed at reassuring Americans and countering Republican criticisms.

"My sense is that ‘the surge’ gives Obama something to talk about, to show that he takes it seriously," Clark says in an email. "Unless things are vastly worse internally than I know, I think Obama just needs to buy them some time to address the issues."

While CGI Federal has no plans to rewrite "5 million lines of code" as an anonymous source told The New York Times, the company says it is working "around the clock" to fix the site. "We remain confident in our ability to deliver continuous improvement in system performance and a more positive user experience," says Linda Odorisio, vice president of communications.

A representative for CGI Federal who testified in Congress today emphasized that the site is not totally busted: people are signing up successfully, albeit very slowly (around 500,000 signups resulted from 20 million visits to the federal and state marketplaces, according to administration numbers from earlier this week). CGI Federal says the site will be fixed in time for Americans to sign up for insurance by December 15th and receive coverage starting January 1st, meeting the deadlines set by the ACA.

By now, the causes of the problems are basically understood. The requirements for the site were changing up until the last minute thanks to politics, the deadlines were aggressive, and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the HHS agency that oversaw the site, simply ran out of time to do thorough quality-assurance testing. Under political pressure, CMS decided to sign the Authority to Operate required for every federal website and flip the switch on October 1st even though there were some indications that the site wasn’t ready, according to testimony given today.

By now, the causes of the problem are basically understood

At least one New Jersey startup has offered to build the marketplace in just one month for free. But is a complex application. For every applicant, must fetch data from the Social Security Administration (SSA), Internal Revenue Service (IRS), Department of Homeland Security (DHS), Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Department of Defense (DOD), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and Peace Corps in order to determine eligibility for subsidies and federal programs.

Next, the site has to transmit data accurately back to private insurance companies, which all have different systems. That transfer has reportedly been causing problems for some insurers who are getting some applications with duplicate or missing data.

The data transfer is being done in real time rather than asynchronously, which would be less of a load on the system, in order to ensure the information is up to date and to protect personal information.

And now because the broken site allowed some people to create multiple accounts and sign up for multiple plans, the contractors fixing the site must also deal with data integrity problems.

"‘Tech surge’ is just a couple buzz words thrown together," a source familiar with CGI Federal tells The Verge in an email. "Anyone who knows how software development and engineering works will tell you that adding more people to a late project will only make it later. This is because you basically have to bring the new resources up to speed, which takes time away from working on the task at hand."

Now the question is how long it will take, post-"surge," to fix the site. "I don't think the tech surge will do enough to fix everything in time for the December 15th sign-up deadline," a consultant who worked on an early phase of says. "I think the deadline will have to be pushed back. These aren't superficial bugs and they will require large code rewrites and possibly a different architecture."

Clay Johnson, a former White House Presidential Innovation Fellow, does believe that people are what’s needed to fix — but not more people, just new ones. He advocates opening up the source code so independent developers can give suggestions, and then opening up requests for proposals to recruit new talent to fix specific issues.

"It’s like if you take your car to the shop and your car mechanic turns your engine upside down, you don’t pay that same mechanic to fix it."

"It’s like if you take your car to the shop and your car mechanic turns your engine upside down, you don’t pay that same mechanic to fix it," he says. "Adding different people to the mix is the right thing to do. I don’t believe that we ought to reward this kind of gross incompetence with more money and more resources."

Building the site has taken more than two years and cost more than $350 million, according to some estimates, and Congress is calling for accountability. The effort to assign blame is proceeding nicely: Sebelius will testify before Congress on October 30th, where she will face some tough questions and maybe even a call for her resignation. Fingerpointing won’t help fix the site, however, and it’s not clear whether a tech surge will either. At the most basic level, developers need to identify bugs and then fix them. And that may just take time.