WASHINGTON – Almost a decade before the health-care website’s failed debut, the Air Force began a project to replace 240 outdated networks with a single logistics system.
After spending about $1 billion, the program led by Computer Sciences Corp. collapsed last year. Sens. Carl Levin , D-Mich., and John McCain, R-Ariz., described it as “one of the most egregious examples of mismanagement in recent memory.”
The list of federal information-technology lapses and flops includes systems to modernize air-traffic control and to secure the nation’s border, and now even President Obama is wondering why the government can’t get it right.
“How we purchase technology in the federal government is cumbersome, complicated and outdated,” Obama said Nov. 14 at a press conference, remarks he echoed Tuesday.
“You’re going through, you know, 40 pages of specs and this and that and the other and there’s all kinds of law involved,” he said Nov. 14. “It’s part of the reason why, chronically, federal IT programs are over budget, behind schedule.”
What the Air Force and healthcare.gov systems had in common were unclear requirements, according to contracting and technology specialists. Projects from a border surveillance program to an FBI case-filing system also have failed because of late changes, a lack of oversight, cost overruns and an emphasis on deadlines rather than the flexibility to let big, complex projects evolve, they said.
“They try to force these IT projects through the same kind of process they use to buy desks and staples,” Chris Kemerer, a professor of information systems at the University of Pittsburgh, said in an interview. “The problem is, IT systems are never completely off-the-shelf.”
The health-insurance website didn’t get exhaustive testing and had undergone late changes before it was unveiled Oct. 1 to a public that found it difficult to use. Its initial failure gave ammunition to critics of the Affordable Care Act, the law that set up what critics and supporters alike call Obamacare.
Units of CGI Group and UnitedHealth Group, both behind the design of healthcare.gov, told lawmakers the government was responsible for testing that should have been done months earlier.
CGI said it got late instructions from the government to make changes to the site. The agency responsible for the website didn’t give CGI final technical requirements until May, according to one person familiar with the project. About a third of the work the contractor had previously performed had to be thrown out and started over as a result, the person said.
Marilyn Tavenner, who heads the Health and Human Services Department’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, cited “some issues with on-time delivery” by Montreal-based CGI.
Contractors and federal agencies frequently don’t communicate well about the scope of government projects, said Mark Amtower, who runs a consulting firm in Clarksville, Md. He compared the process to a game of telephone, in which messages get increasingly garbled as they pass through different people.
In addition, agency officials typically aren’t willing to take a chance on lesser-known companies that might do a better job, he said.
“Nobody ever gets fired for buying IBM,” Amtower said in a phone interview. “And nobody gets fired for buying Northrop Grumman, Lockheed, General Dynamics or any of the other top contractors.”
Big technology failures aren’t limited to the federal government. Large projects are typically handled by multiple companies, or multiple groups within a company, Michael Cusumano, a professor of management and engineering systems at the MIT Sloan School of Management in Cambridge, Mass., said in an interview. In troubled projects, workers make changes that aren’t adequately coordinated, he said.
“They make changes in an attempt to improve what you’re building,” Cusumano said. “Inevitably, they don’t sync up.” The result: two-thirds or more of large IT projects are late or over budget, he said.