Does the HealthCare.gov debacle point to bigger problems?

Maybe HealthCare.gov's disastrous launch wasn't the fault of any individual contractor, but its failings put a spotlight on a recurring problem with government projects: too often contractors and their government customers forget that IT is a team sport, and you almost always fail if you don't pull together.

As the scandal and complaints have unfolded around the roll out of HealthCare.gov, I’ve mostly stayed on the sidelines.

But I’ve noticed the misinformation, mistakes and mischaracterizations. Early on, CGI Federal became the poster child of everything that was wrong with the roll out and government contracting in general.

That struck me as very unfair. Over time, however, other contractors emerged as important players in developing HealthCare.gov so CGI wasn’t alone facing the firing squad.

I’ve wished that these companies would step forward and defend themselves and explain what went wrong and why, but the companies have remained silent, respecting a gag order placed on them by their customer, the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services.


 

CMS picks 'general contractor' to oversee HealthCare.gov fixes

But on Thursday, four of the major contractors working on HealthCare.gov – CGI, Quality Software Services Inc., Equifax Workforce Solutions and Serco Inc. – got their chance to speak, as they were the star witnesses at the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on the portal.

Now, I wasn’t there, but I’ve been reading and talking to people who were there, and one part of the testimony from the four executives really stands out to me.

In fact, I think it points to a problem much broader than HealthCare.gov and speaks volumes for why there are so many failed projects across the government.

These projects run aground because there is no sense of partnership or a team concept between the various contractors and their government customer. Each is playing an individual game and not a team sport.

IT is a team sport, and the ultimate goal is the customer’s success, not meeting the individual requirements, but making sure those requirements build toward real results.

This came into focus for me during the part of the hearing when the contractors talked about when they knew there were problems, and what they did about it.

When asked if they recommended to CMS that the launched be delayed, they said it wasn’t their place.

When asked why they didn’t warn the committee during a hearing in September that there hadn’t been any end-to-end testing, they said it wasn’t our area of responsibility, or words to that effect.

And there you have the problem. They sat on their hands and kept their mouths shut. Maybe their individual pieces were working, but they saw the whole wasn’t solid and yet they remained silent.

Too often, that seems to be the environment of government contracting. I don’t think it is unique to HealthCare.gov; it happens over and over, it just doesn’t make national news.

CMS was probably doing a horrible job as the systems integrator on the project, but these companies are part of the team, and if the project is failing, the teaming is failing. Shouldn’t everyone on the team be able to voice a concern? Shouldn’t that be second nature?

All of them own the failure, even if their individual piece was fine.

What worries me is that the current system encourages companies to act as individuals and not as teammates working in concert with your customers and other stakeholders.

Until we break the current culture and encourage more of a “we are all in this together” environment, we just are going to keep having these kinds of failures and shortcomings.

Frankly, we deserve better.

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