This month we learned that over 8 million people signed up for the Affordable Care Act, or as most people call it, Obamacare, which is 1 million more people than the original estimates from the government’s Office of Management and Budget. If you’d told someone back on October 1st, when the government’s online insurance exchange website, Healthcare.gov, went online that 8 million people would be able to sign up for insurance online, they would have thought you were crazy. That’s, of course, because the website was such a mess, that it was impossible to use. After several frustrating weeks of poor performance, the Obama Administration did what it should have done in the first place, called in the best and the brightest technology experts from Silicon Valley and, to the amazement of supporters and critics, by working around the clock for a little over two months they fixed all the problems.
So, what happened? Well, the same thing that happens whenever any government, state or federal, undertakes a complex technology project: they go to the usual suspects, those big, multinational contractors who understand how to navigate the labyrinth of complexity the bureaucracy of government contracting demands. Unfortunately for the government, these guys are not the brightest and best, they just know how to work the system and keep the money rolling in. If you ask the technology companies in Silicon Valley or elsewhere, the ones that are developing the cutting edge technology that is being used by businesses around the world, if they want to work on government contracts the way the rules are now, you won’t get any takers.
Can you tell I’m a little bitter here? My own personal experience with government contracting has soured me to working on those kind of projects. Look back at the history of government-funded technology projects, you’ll see billions of dollars wasted with nothing to show for the effort. I can name several federal and state projects that were abandoned after spending millions of dollars.
Fortunately, the Healthcare.gov debacle was a wake-up call for Washington DC and you now have a bipartisan group of legislators trying to make some serious changes in the government contracting rules to attract more innovative tech companies to participate in these opportunities. In the meantime, the General Services Administration, the government agency that oversees most government contracts,, has recruited a team of really smart people from the private sector to use speedy “lean start-up” methodology, delivering better products to taxpayers and saving money. It’s a pilot program that uses Presidential Innovative Fellows, a program sponsored by the White House, to build technology projects for the government that are cheaper and go operational much faster.
Although it’s a result of a disastrous website roll-out, it is refreshing to see that there are people in government that understand that the world has changed and it can’t be business as usual. I think this will only improve the way government projects at all levels are executed.