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Why Can't Big Government Launch a Website? 786

Posted by samzenpus
from the failure-to-launch dept.
MarkWhittington writes "Glenn Reynolds, the purveyor of Instapundit, asked the pertinent question, 'If big government can put a man on the moon, why can't it put up a simple website without messing it up?' The answer, as it turns out, is a rather simple one. The Apollo program, that President John F. Kennedy mandated to put a man on the moon and return him to the Earth, was a simple idea well carried out for a number of reasons. The primary one was that Congress did not pass a 1,800 or so page bill backed up by a mind-numbing amount of regulations mandating how NASA would do it. The question of how to conduct the lunar voyages was left up to the engineers at NASA and the aerospace industry at the time. The government simply provided the resources necessary to do the job and a certain degree of oversight. Imagine if President Obama had stated, 'I believe the nation should commit itself to the goal of enabling all Americans to access affordable health insurance' but then left the how to do it to some of the best experts in health care and economics without partisan interference."
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Why Can't Big Government Launch a Website?

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  • by BreakBad (2955249) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:21AM (#45258163)

    SIMPLE != LAWYERS

    • by Big Hairy Ian (1155547) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:24AM (#45258191)
      Yes imagine a world without lawyers http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OhkmOThIySc [youtube.com]
    • by jriding (1076733) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:34AM (#45258319)

      It's not the lawyers, it's the developers.

      • Absolutely right. Developers trying to do the impossible - follow the crumbs the lawyers have left.
      • by iamhassi (659463) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:39AM (#45259063) Journal
        It's not the lawyers or the developers, it's the fact that Obama was trying to sell insurance instead of telling the experts to figure out a way to provide universal coverage. Obama is a president, he should act presidential, assign the task to the experts and let them do it. Instead Obama tried to take total control and screwed it up bad. At least if he assigned it to someone and they screwed it up he could blame someone, but Obamacare literally has his name all over it
        • by sumdumass (711423) on Monday October 28, 2013 @12:03PM (#45259315) Journal

          Obama was trying to sell insurance instead of telling the experts to figure out a way to provide access to healthcare.
          FTFY.

          You don't neccesarily need insurance to have healthcare. You do not need to foot the bill for those who can afford insurance on their own. Over 85% of the population already had insurance so all that was needed was a few tweaks to existing plans like no lifetime limits and make sure those 15% remaining have access when they need it.

          This entire ordeal could have been simpler.

          • by satch89450 (186046) on Monday October 28, 2013 @12:25PM (#45259571) Homepage
            Everyone is missing the point. The space program was done one step at a time, finishing each step before moving on to the next. Yes, this is "waterfall" thinking, but in the space program it was the right way to do it. Properly done, the agile approach could also have been used in the moon program, as long as the result is that the final push is composed of fully-tested and vetted pieces. (Could it be that the agile approach was indeed used? People closer to the facts can answer that.)

            The reason to have multiple contractors is to allow development of different parts to be done in parallel. The key to success with broad development is a really, really good architect specing the interfaces, and each people/group showing that their stuff works as specified at the interfaces. Then integration testing becomes a manageable exercise. This includes performance metrics -- at the interfaces. Was that done here? I highly doubt it.

            And the Affordable Care Act missed a number of elements that would have made health care affordable. It's isn't about insurance, it's about the total experience. And Congress bungled it. At least, those people in Congress who were allowed to contribute did. What was wrong with stepwise refinement?

      • by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:44AM (#45259111) Journal
        The thing that's interesting about the 'blame the developers' position is that, in the run-up to the election, it was generally demonstrated that Obama's tech (management) chops were head-and-shoulders above his opponent's. (Obama's election-information-system-thing was called 'Narwhal', Romney's 'Orca'. Arstechnica has some good coverage of the two; but you can google around for other info. In short, though, 'Narwhal' was considered agile, cloud-architecture-oriented, etc, etc, etc, modern buzzwords, and brutally outperformed the competition.)

        Given that healthcare reform is Sort of A Big Thing (even if the result he got is basically Romneycare, as it exists in MA from before Romney's conversion to the idea that it threatens the fundamental underpinnings of America), I would have expected that an IT project in support of it would have been running in skunkworks mode from pretty much the moment of the election, if not before, and that absolutely every effort would have been made to assure success.
    • by fred911 (83970)

      It's not the lawyers it's the only profession less respected, politicians.

    • by jellomizer (103300) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:58AM (#45258595)

      Well it is worse then that. Most Politicians were Lawyers, Every once in a while you may get a Businessman, a Professor or a MD. But most come from the Legal background.

      That is a big problem!

      How we solve problems is often reflected in our professions.
      I am a software architect, to me I see most problems can be solved them differently then an engineer, which is different then how a School teacher would...

      All these Lawyers in politics is causing a problem where they don't know of other ways to solve problems and they think the only way to do this is changing the law. While that is part of the governments job, we don't have leaders anymore just a bunch of lawers

      • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:18AM (#45258825)

        You're right.

        I have regular work conversations with a lawyer, and she's always trying to put a law or regulatory frame on every single technology or related activity (which is where our company does business). I can understand it, to a point. People are always talking about how Technology moves in one direction and Law is always playing catch-up, and when that happens or, *gasp*, Law actually leap-frogs Tech, then things start to get really messy. They say their trying to make things fair for everyone, but in reality they're bowing down to lobbyists interests.

        It's like in that HHGTTG book (I forget which one) where those people hadn't invented the wheel yet because they couldn't decide what colour it should be.

        I also had a conversation recently with a banker (actually a manager of a local branch office). She said that they were having problems giving out loans to businesses. One one hand, the businesses they could give a loan, don't need it; and those that do need it are in no condition to be given a loan. Well, fuck, who made up the terms and conditions for giving out loans? I thought it was the banks (followed by gov't law and regs), they ought to be able to change the rules...one would think.

      • by LynnwoodRooster (966895) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:32AM (#45258985) Journal

        Well it is worse then that. Most Politicians were Lawyers, Every once in a while you may get a Businessman, a Professor or a MD. But most come from the Legal background.

        And even worse, those few politicians who were businessmen or doctors are the ones most reviled during economic or healthcare related debates... I mean, we can't trust people who have actual experience in the issue being debated, that might show the rest of the politicians in a bad light!

      • by ShanghaiBill (739463) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:48AM (#45259151)

        they don't know of other ways to solve problems and they think the only way to do this is changing the law.

        The other problem with lawyers is that they come from an adversarial profession. They tend to think in terms of winning and losing, rather than mutual benefit. Courts are in the business of slicing up the pie, not making the pie bigger, and certainly not planting some wheat and apple trees so more pies can be made in the future.

        So what can we do about it? Many ballots and voter guides list the profession of the candidate. When in doubt, vote for the non-lawyer.

        • by sackvillian (1476885) on Monday October 28, 2013 @01:59PM (#45260699)

          The other problem with lawyers is that they come from an adversarial profession. They tend to think in terms of winning and losing, rather than mutual benefit. Courts are in the business of slicing up the pie, not making the pie bigger, and certainly not planting some wheat and apple trees so more pies can be made in the future.

          Exactly. Someone once said that the whole trouble with having lawyers in charge is that lawyers are paid to arbitrarily pick a position, then argue for that position come hell, highwater, or new information. They don't typically have any incentive (or even the opportunity) to pick the right position -- they go with the view they've been paid to represent.

          Scientists, engineers, and practically everyone else are instead expected to come to the right answer based on the objectively best evidence available. And if that evidence changes, so should the position. The lawyer-approach wouldn't cure a patient or get an airplane off the ground, why does anyone expect it to be suited to running a government?

    • by methano (519830) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:47AM (#45259133)
      The answer is simple: Wernher von Braun

      You need somebody in charge that knows what it looks like when it's finished.
  • Congress.... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by jythie (914043) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:24AM (#45258205)
    While not uniquely and American problem, this seems to be a recurring issue with the way our government operates. Other countries have managed to put together similar sites with, well, I do not want to say 'little' difficulty since any such undertaking is going to have problems, but 'less' difficulty might work.

    Though it has mostly been smaller countries that have done such projects well, so what we might be looking at here is an artifact of having a large and diverse country with lots of competing philosophies, interests, and actual needs.
  • by Chalnoth (1334923) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:25AM (#45258215)
    It's complicated because the insurance industry is complicated. It's complicated because we didn't have the political will to simply go for Medicare for all. That would have been simple. Instead, we have this complex cluge that has to work with an even more complex private insurance industry. It actually does make the market for private insurance simpler, but that really isn't saying much.
    • by jedidiah (1196) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:29AM (#45258255) Homepage

      There is nothing complicated about knowing what the available options are and matching them to an individual. There's nothing complicated about computing a person's subsidy eligibility.

      If Kentucky can manage this kind of thing, then anyone can.

      This system doesn't have to manage the ENTIRE health insurance industry. It only has to manage a very small part of it and most of that isn't even visible to the end user.

      • there's nothing complicated about integrating the federal income and identity verification with state eligibility systems and dozens or hundreds of private insurers systems, ensuring that no information "leaks out" and that everything works in real time? There's nothing complicated about that?

        It should have worked. It didn't. That's life. Remember when Slashdot rolled out its new commenting system? That sucked. We all complained. Now it works fine and nobody thinks about it. But I don't remember anyone arguing that it was a sign that private web companies were incapable of designing functional websites.

      • by melikamp (631205) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:42AM (#45259095) Homepage Journal

        From http://www.nextnewdeal.net/rortybomb/what-kind-problem-aca-rollout-liberalism [nextnewdeal.net]

        The biggest front-end problem is that users, before they can register, must “cross a busy digital junction in which data are swapped among separate computer systems built or run by contractors.”

        Why is that? It is because the government needs to determine how much of a coupon it’ll write each person to go and buy private insurance. Beyond the philosophical components of means-testing (what the philosopher Jonathan Wolff calls “shameful revelations”), the actual process requires substantial coordination between multiple government agencies with very different infrastructures.

        As the GAO notes, “the data hub is to verify an applicant’s Social Security number with the Social Security Administration (SSA), and to access the data from the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) that are needed to assess the applicant’s income, citizenship, and immigration status. The data hub is also expected to access information from the Veterans Health Administration (VHA), Department of Defense (DOD), Office of Personnel Management (OPM), and Peace Corps to enable exchanges to determine if an applicant is eligible for insurance coverage from other federal programs that would make them ineligible for income-based financial subsidies.”

        Rather than just being an example of bureaucratic infighting, each of these pieces of information is necessary to determine how aggressively the government should subsidize the private insurance individuals will buy, and the entire process will stall and fall apart if one of these checks isn’t completed quickly.

        This by itself might not be a problem; however, the second issue is that the means-testing is necessary to link individuals up with individual private insurers. As the Washington Post notes, the back-end problems are in part the result of the site being “designed to draw from the offerings of private insurers, each with their own computer systems, rates and offerings.”

        Instead of doing it in a cheaper, more straightforward, and more humane manner, representatives insisted that private insurers stay in the mix, and they got exactly the system they wanted. They got a needlessly complicated back-end: a Katamari-like glue ball of various databases, both private and public, all hosted by different entities, and all indispensable by law. So given that the government never had a chance to design or even see significant parts of that system, is it surprising that it is overwhelmed by the initial demand? Not to me. But instead of patiently waiting a few months (which worked for every other massively online game, no matter how fubar the game or the launch was), the plutocracy supporters will now point fingers at Democrats, blaming them for correctly implementing what used to be the Republican vision of healthcare just a few years ago.

        • by nbauman (624611) on Monday October 28, 2013 @01:07PM (#45260109) Homepage Journal

          Paul Krugman had a column about Konczal's blog.

          Krugman said that Obamacare is complicated because political constraints made a straightforward single-payer system unachievable. It keeps private insurance companies in the mix and holds down government outlays through means-testing. That means, it holds down government outlays by making the insurance buyers pay more.

          http://krugman.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/10/26/why-is-obamacare-complicated/ [nytimes.com]
          Why Is Obamacare Complicated?
          Paul Krugman
          October 26, 2013
          So does this mean that liberals should have insisted on single-payer or nothing? No. Single-payer wasn’t going to happen — partly because of the insurance lobby’s power, partly because voters wouldn’t have gone for a system that took away their existing coverage and replaced it with the unknown. Yes, Obamacare is a somewhat awkward kludge, but if that’s what it took to cover the uninsured, so be it.

      • by ColdWetDog (752185) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:58AM (#45259263) Homepage

        OK, if it's not so complicated, then how come my small hospital has FOUR people that JUST deal with weird ass details of various insurance companies? Companies who insist that you format the information in one way for them. Each of them. All thirty of them (and counting).

        Insurance is a simple concept. Health 'insurance' (and it really isn't insurance in the classic sense) is a complicated mess. And the ACA made it worse. Much worse.

        The biggest failing of the ACA is that Obama didn't think he could go up against the insurance companies (and he was likely correct). So they got pretty much what they wanted, their whining notwithstanding. The losers are pretty much everything else. Patients got a few bones. The government got some loopholes and access to information (lovely, just what they needed). Small employers either got a big break or got screwed big time - nobody can tell just yet.

        If Congress had written NASA's enabling legislation like the did for the ACA, all of the engineering talent and expense would have gone towards figuring out what the hell was crammed into several hundred thousand pages of internally inconsistent documentation. There would have been enough money left over to buy a couple sets of Legos and some Estes rocket engines.

    • by garcia (6573) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:42AM (#45258425) Homepage

      No, the problem is that the public sector does not operate anything at all like the private sector all the while trying to emulate it under the overhead and red tape that comes along with requiring the public's input.

      In addition to the issues seen with how the public sector operates, we have the requirement of outsourcing to the private sector to do the bulk of work through private/public partnerships which the public sector cannot and will not effectively manage,

      The competing interests of these partnerships leans heavily on the private sector to make loads of money while the public sector expects them to operate within the bounds of the red tape the private sector is not accustomed or willing to accept as part of their business model.

      If the government took this upon themselves to do anything in its entirety, it would likely be done slowly but correctly. Unfortunately, we end up with the result we did: a quickly cobbled together, expensive, and poorly implemented product which would never have seen the light of day in the private sector.

      This happens ALL THE TIME with public/private partnerships. Take a look at the website redesign for the City of Apple Valley, Minnesota which was originally budgeted at $76,000 [lazylightning.org] but later reduced to a much more reasonable, although still incredibly expensive $30,000 [lazylightning.org]. The resulting site is basically unusable, slow, horrendous to update, and slightly more useless than its predecessor (lipstick on a pig).

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:27AM (#45258237)

    Do you really think the government could get its act together enough to put a person on the moon again? Have you been paying attention?

  • by Cajun Hell (725246) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:28AM (#45258243) Homepage Journal

    The more management feels they need to say about how to do something, the harder it is and the longer it takes.

    Make me a website: easy.

    Make me a website using WordPress and it must use this particular plugin: hard (since it's very unlikely that particular plugin is well-suited to the job; if it made sense to use it, they wouldn't have told you that you have to use it) (and for that matter, it's vanishingly unlikely that WordPress itself is going to be suitable for the application in question, for the same reason: if it made sense, then it wouldn't be a requirement).

    I've seen things' time blossom by a factor of ten, due to stupid shit like this. Seriously, that's not an exaggeration.

    • by Enry (630)

      I was tangentially related to a project that was supposed to setup chargeback for a HPC environment. Before I left it was going on for over a year and was just barely in an alpha state (i.e. just past a mockup). There were still core operational questions that needed to be answered and nobody who could answer them was part of the project or brought in.

  • Apollo 1? Apollo 13? (Score:5, Informative)

    by sweatyboatman (457800) <sweatyboatman AT hotmail DOT com> on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:29AM (#45258257) Homepage Journal

    Our efforts to land on the moon didn't go smoothly. Also we spent a lot more money to go to the moon.

    Apollo 1 was scheduled to be the first manned mission of the U.S. Apollo manned lunar landing program, with a target launch date of February 21, 1967. A cabin fire during a launch pad test on January 27 at Launch Pad 34 at Cape Canaveral killed all three crew members—Command Pilot Virgil I. "Gus" Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White II and Pilot Roger B. Chaffee—and destroyed the Command Module (CM).

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_1 [wikipedia.org]

    Apollo 13 was the seventh manned mission in the American Apollo space program and the third intended to land on the Moon... but the lunar landing was aborted after an oxygen tank exploded two days later, crippling the Service Module (SM) upon which the Command Module (CM) depended. Despite great hardship caused by limited power, loss of cabin heat, shortage of potable water, and the critical need to jury-rig the carbon dioxide removal system, the crew returned safely to Earth on April 17.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apollo_13 [wikipedia.org]

    Complex problems are complex.

  • by mwvdlee (775178) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:29AM (#45258263) Homepage

    If I recall correctly, the man-on-the-moon trip wasn't a very controversial political issue. The health care plan is. No doubt the political forces would have managed to screw this up even further.
    Also; nobody feels responsible. Fuck up part of a lunar lander and you will get the blame if somebody dies. Fuck up part of a website and it's unlikely your company will be traced back from any deaths due to lack of medical service that might occur.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:30AM (#45258269)
    This post makes it sound like NASA is a private contractor that takes the job out of "the governments" hands, so it can be done properly and efficiently. But that is not the case, you have just provided an example that government organizations can run things efficiently.
  • by alen (225700) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:30AM (#45258281)

    of constant testing, refinement and a series of more complicated missions. not like the first mission went straight to the moon. a few people even died in a fire during prep for a mission. they even had multiple crews training for the same mission at the same time knowing only one crew was going up

    the obamacare website the contractors had to build in a few months and code hundreds of pages of law and regulations into logical business rules and a database schema. and no time was there testing or a ramp up of opening up the site to a few people and then allowing more people access as they work out the bugs

  • Imagine (Score:5, Insightful)

    by sacrilicious (316896) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:30AM (#45258285) Homepage

    Imagine if President Obama had stated, 'I believe the nation should commit itself to the goal of enabling all Americans to access affordable health insurance' but then left the how to do it to some of the best experts in health care and economics without partisan interference."

    Yes, imagine if he or anyone had had the political freedom to leave such a choice to truly non-partisan experts... but he didn't have that freedom, because there are such corporate interests vested in the outcome, with tentacles all into both parties, that such freedom to do so does not exist. If back in Kennedy's day there were numerous huge wealthy corporations with interests in the moon landing NOT happening, or happening on different timetables with different agendas, *and* the liberty to corrupt politics with money had reached the fever pitch it has today, *and* politicians had already given up the idea of even posturing to seem like they had nobility and dignity above that of a Geraldo show, THEN the moon landing might well and truly have been f*cked.

  • This is why (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chas (5144) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:31AM (#45258301) Homepage Journal

    Because you have a bunch of people who have zero technical knowledge and zero REAL project management experience calling the shots. They come up with bullshit specs and a bunch of pie-in-the-sky.

    Because some greedy fuck of a salesdisck at a company sees "Gubmint Fundin'", performs a cranial-rectal insertion and promises shit his techs have NO way to actually deliver.

    Because the American people have gotten out of the habit of tarring, feathering and lynching civil servants that pull stupid shit like this.

  • by C R Johnson (141) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:33AM (#45258307) Homepage

    It is also called graft.
    They awarded a 700M$ contract without bidding to a company with ties to the Obama campaign and to people high up in the administration.
    As to be expected, the company was not competent and failed.

  • by Bucc5062 (856482) <bucc5062.gmail@com> on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:34AM (#45258313)

    NASA had it easy. They only had to deal with Physics.

    Social Sciences are messy, Social programs are messy and when it involves large groups of people, politicians get involved which makes a services program almost impossible to get right. Given current technology (at the time) there were just a limited number of ways the Moon mission could be completed. Creating a web site in a fractious, antagonist political world had/has too many variables to "get it right". It took close to 10 years to get a man on the moon, and somehow we're suppose to build a complicated heath management system in a few months...It is not a question of expertise, both environments have talent, but it was/is a question of Management, goals, and commitment. NASA employees were vested and proud of their work for they were a part of the whole. CGI Federal *contractors* don't give a shit about the whole, just their slice of the dollar pie. That is why we can put a man on the moon, but can't write a complex web site. (IMHO)

  • Why not? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by T.E.D. (34228) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:35AM (#45258335)

    Anywhere from 30 to 70% of large IT projects fail, depending on who you ask. Why would the US Government be immune?

  • by X!0mbarg (470366) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:38AM (#45258369)

    If you want a project to fail (as some in opposition to Obama certainly do), you pad a simple, decent idea with enough B.S. to make it collapse under its own weight, and then blame the source.

    I call it "Bureaucratic Sabotage". Agree to allow something to happen, and then Bury it in B.S. and layer on the Pork-Barrel extras to make sure it fails miserably, while claiming to be co-operative, all the while knowing what the results will be...

    Bottom line is: Good Luck on getting any decent idea through "Government" without it getting totally Buggered (and otherwise mutated) from its' original form and function.

  • by jkrise (535370) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:38AM (#45258375) Journal

    Putting a rocket on the moon is a purely technical problem; nothing social or political about it. Automating the healthcare industry involves several players:

    1. The care givers
    2. The care receivers
    3. The insurance agents
    4. Lawyers
    5. Politicians
    6. Software, platform and hardware architects

    4 and 5 interfere with 1, 2, 6 and 3. Unlike in the case of NASA, there are more than hundreds of players providing (6); and they are answerable to their shareholders unlike NASA.

    It is a complex social problem. To suppose that it is a mere technical and managerial challenge is a flawed assumption.

  • by Andrewkov (140579) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:40AM (#45258389)

    Simple answer, web developement is harder than rocket science!

  • Ummm... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by fuzzyfuzzyfungus (1223518) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:40AM (#45258401) Journal
    Just for the sake of perspective, 'big government' didn't "just put a man on the moon", it was an iterative process going all the way back to the experience of the Nazi war criminals we hastily whitewashed, up through a variety of incremental improvements and test designs (along with various accidents, some fatal), until we get to the Apollo missions that everyone actually remembers (and some of those had Issues as well).

    Apollo 1 didn't, exactly go so hot(well, it actually went pretty hot indeed), and at least 5 others were killed in jet-based training.

    Gemini 8 almost went rather badly, Apollo 12 was struck by lighting, Apollo 13's multiple issues are well known, Apollo 15 had parachute problems.

    An assortment of workers and techs have also snuffed it in ground based accidents while working on space launch hardware.

    This is not to say that the healthcare.gov rolllout was a success (it wasn't); but website launch failures are pretty boring as failure goes, everyone from small-business intranets up to major web companies seems to fuck them up on occasion. The bigger question will be time-to-fix. To use TFA's own analogy, you could have written "Why can't big government launch a rocket?" when Apollo 1 rather embarassingly caught fire on the ground, reducing the entire crew to charred corpses, because it had been filled with pure oxygen and improperly passivated. As we now know, they can, just not on the first try.
  • by heavyion (883530) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:40AM (#45258409)

    As a federal worker I can tell you that trying to buy something for government use is an extremely byzantine process. An example, if I need to buy a monitor cable, I have to fill out 3 forms (one of them is 14 pages), get four _independent_ approvals, quotes (yes... quotes for a monitor cable), and then follow the documents to make sure nothing gets messed-up along the way. I have to do this for _any_ piece of equipment that is in any way related to information technology. I don't want to describe the process for anything requiring a contract and I can't imagine the amount of work that went into writing the requirements document for a project involving 55 (55!) contracting agencies. The REAL PROBLEM here is the desperate need for contract and purchasing reform in the federal government.

    • by ItsJustAPseudonym (1259172) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:10AM (#45258735)
      "The REAL PROBLEM here is the desperate need for contract and purchasing reform in the federal government."

      Yes, and paradoxically, all of those procedures exist because of efforts to control costs. (You certainly know this, but I am stating it for the other readers.) If there are no controls, then waste occurs. But with controls, other kinds of waste occur. "Quality" is a difficult balance.
  • by ptudor (22537) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:54AM (#45258547) Homepage Journal
    The headline could do without that loaded word "big" and the connotations it brings. An easy counterpoint is DNSSEC: The entire dotgov TLD has had DNSSEC deployed for years in stark contrast to the adoption rate among the general population. Complex projects in technology are not all alike.
  • by ErichTheRed (39327) on Monday October 28, 2013 @10:56AM (#45258573)

    Everyone looking to immediately blame this on government should think about what's involved and what probably happened:

    1. The contract went to the lowest bidder and/or the firm that could do the most backroom political deals to win. This is not necessarily the team you want doing the work, nor are they necessarily the most capable.
    2. It's a huge, monster systems integration challenge. There are probably thousands of XML data brokers, enterprise service buses, web services libraries, and wrappers of wrappers of wrappers of abstraction layers to get the exchange, the insurance companies, the tax records systems used for eligibility verification, the authentication, etc etc etc talking to each other. This is one of the things I do for work on various big systems projects, and it's hard when you have a competent team. When you're dealing with the "offshore delivery centers" of the firm in Point #1 above, it's an absolute nightmare.
    3. Every outsourcing contract, public or private sector suffers from the same problem -- it's always more expensive, and the people involved don't have any incentive beyond a paycheck to see it work. I've seen that happen all the time as an FTE in companies overrun by consultants. The consultants don't care what happens as long as they're billing time. If they deliver garbage, so be it, as long as it can be shown that it does what the contract says it does.
    4. Continuing with the "don't care" theme, there's also no incentive for the contractor to get it right the first time. Even contracts with penalties for failure or missed dates aren't a big deal because they can bill way more cleaning up the mess they made.
    5. I'm sure the "outsourcing partners" weren't forthcoming when the RFP was put out and they saw red flags. Some outsourcers like to trap the customer and have them think everything's sorted, when there's really a huge problem with design/specs/whatever that will mean a very expensive rewrite later on.
    6. Any project with a huge red target date on the calendar that is not flexible is doomed to failure. Problems like this lead to stupid things that PMs do like stuff more people onto a late piece of the project where it clearly doesn't help, and it leads to people taking shortcuts to rush it out the door.
    7. There was probably immense cost pressure, not from the gov't itself, but from the outsourcer trying to squeeze every nickel out of the deal, and so it probably runs on half the hardware it needs, and has no DR facilities.
    8. It was probably slapped together by hundreds of 24 year old new graduate business analysts, hundreds of 30 year old PMs, and thousands of offshore resources of dubious quality. Look at pretty much any bespoke line of business web application you have to use for your job. Chances are you hate it and it has maddening bugs that make it hard to live with. Now take that same code quality and put it in front of Joe Average, and I'm not surprised people are complaining.

    I honestly think they should have done this in-house with supplemental hired gun contractors for the areas they needed it in. Despite the stories, I'm sure working for a government agency has its advantages. I would think that people (myself included) would welcome a more stable employment environment (at the expense of salary,) a stable retirement system, and the ability to work on a critical system that affects people's daily lives. The problem is that people see IT people getting rich at Google/Facebook/Latest Social Media Startup and think that they're going to be the next one to make the big time. Reality is that most people are mediocre coders/IT people and they're never going to get a big payday supporting the current IT employment model we have.

    Also, this entire mess would have been avoided by extending Medicare benefits to everyone. Doctors would be happy because they would get paid without questions from insurers, patients would be happy because they wouldn't have to deal with insurance companies -- the only people who wouldn't be happy are insurance companies, which is why we have the system we have now. Seriously, the Medicare system processes payments for doctors with very little difficulty -- because we have the insurance companies involved, we had to build a completely new system.

  • Flamebait (Score:5, Insightful)

    by pesho (843750) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:26AM (#45258919)
    Recently a bunch of political hacks have started trolling slashdot. We desperately need an option for moderating the articles. Look at this one. Just reading the title should have given the editors big enough clue. "Why can't big government launch a website?". Really? Unless you lived on Mars in the past 30 years, you should be well aware of large number of government web sites. And what is it with the "Big" qualifier. Big relative to what? The size of the country? Do you have a specific branch of the government that you think is too big? Say for example is the parks service sucking the life blood of the economy (I will give you the defense department though). May be the original article should have privoded some more detail on this particular website. For example how the website has to implement all the requirements of a law that has become increasingly byzantine due to bickering from one particular party and the insurance industry. How it requires interfacing with databases which may or may not have suitable API (IRS for example to determine eligibility). How there was not enough time to properly plan in part because of the delays in passing the law and defending it in court, in part due to its complexity and in part because of the desire of the current administration to prevent future repeal by having it implementing and running before its term is over.
  • by kaizendojo (956951) on Monday October 28, 2013 @11:32AM (#45258989)
    Another bullshit headline designed to gather hits. Big government launches websites all the time. Why doesn't "big news" cover it? Because it isn't sexy. How many times has the slashdot effect crashed or rendered a site otherwise unreachable. So what do you think the effect of millions upon millions of hits to a site wouldn't cause problems? Everybody who seems to "know" what the problem is should reach out and help fix it. Otherwise keep it to yourself.
  • Similar services (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Picass0 (147474) on Monday October 28, 2013 @12:12PM (#45259419) Homepage Journal

    The frustrating thing - and this is specific to the website - is there are already other websites doing functionally similar tasks.

    Every evening you will see Flo and Prudential Auto Insurance commercials. Or the green muppet telling you how you can shop for mortgages while wearing your underwear. There are many websites that act as one stop shops for other services, shopping for health insurance. They collect a few basic facts and then provide you with a handful of companies to suit your needs. A gov't insurance website should not be re-inventing the wheel.

    I'm quite certain the commercial services helping you shop for loans, mortgages, insurance and other services didn't have $600m startup costs either.

  • Wrong premise (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Kythe (4779) on Monday October 28, 2013 @12:37PM (#45259729)
    The premise of the question is wrong in the first place (considering the source, not terribly surprising). The ACA website is not a "simple website". In fact, it's extremely complex, and has to interface with many other disparate federal IT systems. The federal government puts up "simple" websites all the time.

    And if you're looking for a reason why this fiasco happened in the first place, look no farther than the GOP-run states who, in a deliberate attempt to obstruct the law (likely an extension of their explicitly-stated intent to obstruct anything President Obama did), chose not to meet their responsibility under the law and put up state-run exchanges.

    Funny -- usually conservatives LIKE it when things are left up to the states. I guess that premise goes out the window when a chance to undermine President Obama presents itself.
  • It's Because (Score:4, Insightful)

    by Greyfox (87712) on Monday October 28, 2013 @03:00PM (#45261473) Homepage Journal
    Only two or three contracting companies can actually be bothered to jump through the hoops required to do business with the Fed, and they all suck. So you can go in there and pitch a Citrix/Winframe solution that was all the rage in 1993 and they'll just eat that shit up! And the thing about the Fed is they're so damn easy! No matter how many times they get burned, they never tie payment to any sort of acceptance criteria! You can just tell them your 14 Indian subcontractors implemented a shining beacon of code that reads your mind and does exactly what you want! And they'll believe you every time! So you take your 6 billion dollars and retire to the Bahamas, leaving behind huge shit sandwich for everyone else to eat!

It is the quality rather than the quantity that matters. - Lucius Annaeus Seneca (4 B.C. - A.D. 65)

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