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Domestic Affairs, Raj Sanghvi

Who’s to Blame?

The rollout of the federal website associated with the Affordable Care Act, healthcare.gov, was an institutional catastrophe. No arguments there. The issues were numerous, ranging from simple interface confusion to much more complex input glitches, data integration problems, security issues, and structural instabilities. Daughters are being listed as mothers, multiple people have the same social security number, and people are being rejected because their names aren’t “unique” enough. The website has crashed and been stalled several times since its introduction on October 1st, leaving many Americans frustrated and “software experts” scrambling for solutions. Aside from being a half-billion dollar mess of data and feeding a big, juicy steak to the GOP attack dog, the initial failure of healthcare.gov asks a lot of questions about accountability. Whose fault is it?

Maybe it’s the contractors. At the end of the day, the website is messed up. The ones designing the websites are the software developers, the private companies that the government contracted to get the job done and get it done well. It follows logically that any shortcomings in the physical structure of the website are faults of theirs. Not to mention the very inevitable chaos that arises from having over 50 independent contractors designing separate parts of the software, connection, and database systems, healthcare.gov is not your average website. The data from it is an integration project; systems from numerous states, federal agencies, and private companies have to be included into a much larger, more complex system and data must flow between them seamlessly. It’s unreasonable to expect any department, let alone that of Health and Human Services, to have the practical means to oversee a technical integration such as that. It’s like a doctor giving you treatment for a disease, and then stepping back and saying “Okay, from here on out I’m sure you’ll be able to monitor the treatment on your own. Just analyze these MRI results and run a few tests on yourself, you should be fine.” If you didn’t have a medical degree, you probably wouldn’t be able to do that. Similarly, bureaucrats don’t understand computer science.

Maybe it’s the federal government. It has become common knowledge that the government tested the site inadequately – many are suspicious that testing that should have been done months ago was done only in the weeks preceding the launch of the site. There is also a certain bureaucratic procedure for selecting and approving contractors, a procedure that picks its favorites based on a number of unknown factors and often neglects firms that are better qualified or more skilled. The Obama administration, in order to fit the political schedule, also forced a deadline onto its contractors, which, in the tech world, isn’t always the wisest thing to do. As one analyst put it: “You’re not going to get a baby in one month using nine women, it’s going to take a full nine months.” An insubstantial oversight of contractors coupled with poor time management and incompetence at the heads of various acronyms (see: Kathleen Sebelius) were the ominous beginnings of an administrative thumbs-down. Considering the administration has had three years to put all the right measures in place, it’s a little embarrassing to see a failure this significant.

And maybe it’s Europe’s fault for setting an example. Socialists.

—Raj Sanghvi

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