There's a lot of talk in the press these days about how hard it is for the federal government to do IT right and how the blame for the failures of the healthcare.gov website should fall on the federal procurement system, not the federal managers.
As someone who advocated enthusiastically for federal use of relatively advanced IT while in government, I agree that the procurement process makes it hard to produce IT that works on budget and on time. There have been plenty of expensive IT failures in recent administrations.
That said, it isn't impossible, even with stiff political opposition, to manage big public-facing federal IT projects successfully. I can think of three fairly complex IT projects that my old department delivered despite substantial public/Congressional opposition in the second half of George W. Bush's administration.
They weren't quite as hard as the healthcare problem, but they were pretty hard and the time pressure was often just as great. Putting together the list from memory, which may be faulty on some details, they are:
- ESTA: The Electronic System for Travel Authorization, unknown to Americans, must be negotiated by 20 million visa-waiver visitors to the US, who must seek and obtain approval for their travel. Backend systems must send the details of each traveler's filing to multiple agencies. The electronic approval then must be available to hundreds or thousands of US ports of entry 24 hours a day. The system was put in place by Customs and Border Protection in about two years, with a firm deadline of January 2009 and despite the sniping of the European Union, which saw it as an "electronic visa." Estimated cost to build and maintain: $50 million a year.
- E-Verify: Half a million employers log on to E-Verify, many of them every day, to enter new-employee data and get confirmation from DHS that the employee is work-authorized. Total transactions are about 20 million a year. The back-end coordinates with several other agency databases, usually within a few minutes. Business interests and immigration advocacy groups hated the system and did their best to portray it as a failure. Any work-authorized American who was denied authorization, even temporarily, was treated as a scandal requiring abandonment of the system. Cost to build and maintain: maybe $100 million a year. To be fair, the system was put together much more slowly, over a decade or more, though some of the biggest jumps in traffic occurred in a few years after 2006.
- US-VISIT: Every foreign visitor to the United States is now fingerprinted at the border and the prints must be instantly compared against records in several other agencies. The program handles 45 million transactions a year and was put in place in a few years under Secretary Ridge, at a time when DHS was also trying to organize itself. Civil liberties and foreign hostility to the whole idea of fingerprinting visitors was intense, and hopes that the system would fail were widespread in those circles. It didn't. Annual cost: up to $300 million.
These programs aren't directly comparable to the healthcare challenge, but they're in the ballpark; as I remember they were delivered without serious schedule or cost overruns, and they worked when delivered. So it can be done with careful management, and to be frank, if your administration's entire legacy depends on delivering a working healthcare IT system, managing the IT process should be a pretty high priority.
For that reason, I am surprised at the management problems that the Obamacare website has suffered from. They can't be blamed entirely on the IT procurement process.