With Congress and President Trump at a budget impasse, funding for significant portions of the US Federal government ended midnight Friday, December 18, 2018. Historically, government employees are not paid on time but are retroactively paid after the new budget is implemented. The same is not true for government contractors.
Government contractors compete against each other to provide a wide range of services such as computer programming, construction, security guards, cafeterias, janitorial services, technical experts, maintenance workers, and much more. When the government shuts down, contractor staff are not needed or can’t do their work. But they are real companies and people who suffer. Long-term, it’s bad for US taxpayers.
Our Contract with Amtrak is Suspended
We have a government contract with Amtrak which was suspended by this letter:
This contract provides help for Microsoft Access database programming and is relatively small. We do not have dedicated staff for the contract, so we are not really affected as our people will work on other projects.
Unfortunately, we have colleagues who are government contractors or in businesses more dependent on the government who are significantly impacted by the shutdown. This is especially true for companies who provide staff to work at government facilities that are now closed. Most are hesitant to speak publicly about their experiences in fear their government clients would be offended, so we’d like to share our experiences and theirs.
Very Tough Situation and Decisions for Government Contractors and Their Employees
Since government contractors are unlikely to be repaid when the budget is finally resolved, government contractors with dedicated staff for those contracts need to decide whether to pay their employees for time they never expected to not charge to the government. The impact is somewhat offset by the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, and maybe they can force employees to take vacation days. But as the shutdown lasts longer, contractors will have to pay their employees from their own funds. Not paying them runs the risk that the employees leave and won’t be available once the budget is resolved. One cannot expect employees to remain loyal if they aren’t paid. Meanwhile, employees are dusting off their resumes and seeking alternative employers.
Small businesses are especially vulnerable since many contracts have small profit margins, so without significant cash and lines of credit, a cash flow problem can quickly bankrupt a company. Even generous owners who try to do the “right thing”, may not be able to if their cash is depleted. That would lead to fewer government contractors in the future and higher costs to taxpayers.
A friend of mind who owns a firm completely focused on servicing the federal government shared:
“As contractors, our employees still get paid and yet we are unable to bill. Cash is king and small companies like mine live and die by cash. This is the worst.”
On December 26th, we sent a Twitter message with the letter we received from Amtrak and the sympathy we feel for government contractors and their employees.
“Business owners who have [dedicated] staff are making the decision: Do we pay people or not, even though we won’t get paid by the government? Either you force people to take vacation, or you pay them, to be a good company ― but depending how long it drags on, one may not have a choice.”
Self-Inflicted Wound that Should be Resolved Promptly
Eventually the budget will be resolved. We hope the parties come to their senses and do it sooner rather than later because innocent people who’ve dedicated their firms and lives to providing a professional service to US taxpayers are at risk and feeling real pain. That’s terrible for them now and our country long-term.
Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg are getting blamed for a large number of issues from promoting fake news, election fraud, mishandling user data, and profiting from selling user data.
While some of that may be true, the Facebook security breach is actually a violation of Facebook API licensing rules by the people who used it. Facebook provided the data and encouraged developers like us to create innovative solutions for the Facebook ecosystem. They weren’t selling the data.They weren’t even charging us to use it.
Our Facebook App with Social Network Analysis and Maps
In 2010, we created a Facebook application using our Sentinel Visualizer technology to perform Social Network Analysis (SNA) based on a user’s friends’ friends. It would automatically cluster friends so you could quickly see their groups (high school, college, work, family, in-laws, clubs, etc.).
Each box (picture) was one of your friends, and you could move them around the network, hover over them to get their info, or click on them to go to their page.
We also plotted friends on a Microsoft Bing Map making it easy to see who were near you or where you were visiting.
We launched our free Sentinel Visualizer Facebook App to a limited number of users and it started to gain followers. People were amazed to see which of their friends knew each other. The application started to go viral. We were having trouble supporting the traffic.
Not Allowed to Save Facebook Data
One of the things developers couldn’t do was to save Facebook’s data. All we collected were the user names and email addresses people provided when they registered our program. Unfortunately, other developers didn’t abide by Facebook’s terms and the data improperly got to Cambridge Analytica and others.
Facebook Stopped Making the Data Available
Our app ceased to work when Facebook limited their APIs and prevented our ability to get to the list of your friends’ friends among your network.
It’s not entirely Facebook’s fault for trying to spur innovation by sharing their data for free. Some developers violated the trust Facebook gave them.
The Full Story
Here’s our new web page describing our experience in detail:
Hannity traveled to London to interview Julian Assange at the Ecuadorian Embassy where he’s seeking asylum. They discussed an overview of Assange’s role as founder of WikiLeaks, and their obtaining and publishing the emails from the Democratic National Committee the weeks before the US Presidential election. Some people attribute Hillary Clinton’s loss to the revelations in those emails especially from John Podesta, the former White House Chief of Staff and Chairman of the Clinton campaign. They are also accusing the Russians for hacking (stealing) and providing the data to Assange so Donald Trump could win the election.
On January 4, 2017, I was on the radio show with Sean Hannity and Brigadier General Eli Ben Meir, former Israeli Military Intelligence chief. The three of us discussed the WikiLeaks disclosures. I commented specifically on:
Cyber attacks and the security breach at OPM disclosed non-classified government employees and by omission who were covert at American Embassies globally.
Noting Julian Assange’s careful word choices to exclude Russia as source without excluding them as the ultimate source of his sources.
The need for WikiLeaks’ to keep their sources confidential and how they amplified the data from Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden.
Different approaches to preventing cyber attacks depending on the cause. “It’s one thing when someone steals your car because they broke into it. It’s another thing when someone steals your car because you left your keys in the ignition.”
Here’s the audio of the show:
My segment starts at the 6:50 mark. Sean and General Meir speak first, then I start around 9:25. Final comments at 14:15 and it wraps up by 14:50.
Only a limited amount of information can be discussed in such a short interview. Some additional issues to consider are:
Securing data over the internet and inside organizations is very challenging. Threats may come from:
External hacks that need to be monitored and defeated
Internal people who unintentionally leave the front door unlocked
Internal people who intentionally leak information
Different solutions are required for each type of threat. Some are at the software vendor, design, and developer level, while others involve end-user training, background checks, and monitoring.
Applications can be built so that simply disclosing a user name and password doesn’t compromise the whole system by require two-factor authentication and registering devices that can use those credentials.
Unfortunately, many systems were built well before today’s cyber threats existed. The cost of making those systems more secure without breaking their existing functionality will be daunting and expensive. In many cases, the original source code, development environment and/or vendor are long gone, so the only option is to replace them which is also very expensive and time consuming.
Julian Assange and WikiLeaks are Not Heroes
We need to keep in mind that the WikiLeaks exposed top secret US information by publishing the disclosures from Manning and Snowden. Lives were put at risk and lives may have been lost because of those publications. The Arab Spring was inflamed in part by the disclosure of diplomatic communications and one could argue the human tragedy in Syria is tied to this as well. While Republicans are celebrating and defending Assange and WikiLeaks now for the DNC emails, the tables may turn very quickly.
Data That’s Not Exposed May be More Dangerous
While many are focused on the DNC emails, it’s not unreasonable to assume the people who hacked that also got the RNC emails. Data can be power, and in the wrong hands, data can be used for nefarious purposes such as blackmail.
If the RNC data were compromised, we should be extremely worried if the hackers discovered it was more valuable to keep private than public. Whether they use it directly or sell it to another party or country, the information can make victims puppets by threatening the exposure of their personal data. It’s not uncommon during E-discovery of an email server to discover all sorts of inappropriate language, behavior and activity conducted by individuals in an organization. Disclosures of affairs, homosexual activity, underage sex, bribery, unethical business dealings, breeches of confidentiality, collusion, and actual crimes are often found in email threads and can be used for blackmail.
“Instead of being user-friendly, the original website was user-hostile”
Basics of Data Entry Systems
We at FMS have created countless database systems where data entry played an important role. Unlike fancy graphics filled systems that look nice, data entry systems must be designed with a focus on ease-of-use by the end-user to enter, review, and update their information. If there are many questions and complex relationships, users need to be able to see as much of that on one screen as possible. If multiple screens are required, being able to move back and forth between screens without losing data and having changes in one screen reflected on others is critical for an efficient and intuitive user experience.
Data Entry Systems Should Target Users with Large Screens
For complex tasks such as writing a paper or working on a large spreadsheet, computers remain the preferred platform for getting work done where people can have one or multiple large screens. Serious data entry applications should target that user.
Mobile Apps Have a Role, but Not for Serious Data Entry
While mobile applications have a place, it’s not appropriate for complicated data entry since one question per screen is very inefficient. Not being able to see previous entries and pressing Next and Back for each question drives users crazy. The original designers of the Healthcare.gov web site designed it as if it were a simple, consumer mobile app meant to be filled out with a few finger clicks. They were either paid by the screen or just clueless about what a business data entry system requires.
Initial Request for Information Should be Anonymous
The purpose of the public facing Healthcare.gov website should be focused on helping prospects with the buying process. People need to quickly browse the health insurance options that are available to them in their state and cost estimates. The initial data entry should be the minimal anonymous information necessary to produce those results such as gender, age, zip code, family size, etc. Nothing personal such as names, social security numbers, email address, etc.
Automating a Paper Form
Only after customers have made a decision to buy should they be required (and expect) to provide more detailed information. This application feature is the core of the public facing Healthcare.gov website and is simply the automation of a 12 page paper form. It shouldn’t be that difficult.
We at FMS have automated paper forms for decades. Recently, we did this for a series of paper documents at the National Archives. The cost of doing this was in the tens of thousands of dollars, not the hundred of millions that Healthcare.gov cost.
Separating Data Entry from Complex Validation
A high volume, data entry system like Healthcare.gov should be designed to collect the user’s information as quickly as possible without trying to validate everything with other government systems in real-time. The cross-validation of information against IRS, HHS, Homeland Security, and other databases should happen in a background process that can withstand slowdowns or down times of dependent systems. This separates the complexity and risk of linking multiple systems together, manages the load on the other systems, and lets the user get done quicker. If a problem is detected later, an email can be sent to the user to fix the mistake or invalidate their application. Regardless, none of that needs to happen while the user is entering their data. After all, it’s not as if they were going to get insurance immediately upon pressing Submit.
It remains shocking to me that it cost taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars initially for the broken Healthcare.gov site, and hundreds of millions dollars afterwards to the same contractors to fix it. The procurement process and incentives are completely inverted for creating and delivering quality software. It’s outright theft, but no one seems to be held responsible for it, and lots of people profiting mightily from it.
Conclusion: Data Entry Systems Aren’t Difficult If You Know What You’re Doing
I’ve contended that we at FMS could have created the public facing Healthcare.gov site for $1 million. Some people scoff at that, but in our world and that of our customers, $1 million still goes a long ways. We created an international humanitarian relief logistics system for the United Nations for half that amount, and it supports full language localization as it’s deployed in 80+ countries. Healthcare.gov didn’t even support Spanish when it debuted, and that was one of its original requirements.
Creating a good data entry system is not rocket science. This is not something that needs to be done in Silicon Valley. What’s needed is a team who’ve done it before and know what they’re doing. Creating this type of solution requires a solid database foundation, understanding the user needs, creating an intuitive user experience, and building it so that it’s maintainable over time. It’s not something that can be created by people on their first paid programming job, but it’s not a rare skill. I’m proud that my development team at FMS have been with me for decades and continue to deliver systems that just work.
Over the past few years, I’ve had the pleasure of working with and supporting the Arlington, Virginia chapter of YearUp. YearUp is a non-profit organization helping at risk youths get out of a lifetime in minimum wage jobs and toward a career path with a living wage.
They not only teach marketable skills, but supplement it with the personal and business soft skills necessary to be successful in business. They have particular focus teaching computer hardware skills, help desk, and basic finance. They understand and address employer needs: “We know you hire for skills, and fire for behavior in the work world.” By learning what companies and bosses expect, these youths are able to better understand what it means to be a professional, provide more value to their employers, and justify earning a higher salary.
Both FMS EVP Michelle Swann-Renee and I have met the students in person to discuss what employers seek and how to differentiate oneself positively in the workforce. As employers, we need people who arrive with skills we can’t train: honesty, work ethic, personal drive, high standards and expectations of one’s performance, getting along with others, ability to accept constructive criticism, writing and speaking skills, common sense, etc. Specific technical skills can be taught and change over time; those basic skills and character traits are difficult for a company to train. We’ve been impressed with the dedication of the staff and eagerness of the students to take the opportunity to learn and succeed. Those who make it through the program are very likely to be successful in a career and further education.
Technical Evaluation of the Relaunched Healthcare.gov Web Site
On December 1, a updated version of Healthcare.gov was deployed which offers considerable improvements over the original October 1 launch. The administration and contractors issued some press releases and the general public and press just accepted it without really understanding the technical issues. Here’s my technical assessment of the published statements.
My Assessment of Healthcare.gov, Version 1, on October 1
As I described in my original blog post about Healthcare.gov, the site on October 1 was a technical disaster. I received a lot of criticism with my original assessment from those who thought I had a political agenda against ACA or people who simply wished the site was functional independent of the facts.
My assessment on October 1 was eventually vindicated. It took a few weeks for the media, general public, and administration to recognize that the issues were far more problematic than the politically attractive excuse of having too many users.
Unfortunately, the contractors who delivered the flawed system on October 1 were rewarded with additional contracts and funds to fix the mess they created. Our federal government procurement process actually gives them more money from their failure than if they did a good job. It’s no wonder that large IT government contractors continue to deliver technically mediocre results. As long as they make sure their lawyers are more powerful than the government lawyers, they can deflect ALL blame so they can continue to use their “unblemished” past performance to go after new contracts. We will see if any of the contractors here are held accountable for this fiasco when they seek future business. This contractor behavior extends across all branches of government.
It would be amazing to interview the developers who actually worked on the original project, discover what their prior experience was, what they were being paid, and how much the taxpayers were billed for their “expertise”. The contractors are enforcing confidentiality rules to prevent those people from talking to the press in the “interest” of protecting taxpayers. I thnk it’s pretty clear which interests they’re trying to protect.
Enhancements in Version 2
When the administration recognized the technical disaster, they brought in Jeff Zients to lead the disaster relief team. It’s a small world. Mr. Zients and I actually worked at the same firm (SPA/Mercer) before I started FMS, though I left a few years before he joined. Through his leadership, he added some experienced people and reorganized the team while using the same contractors. They issued a Progress and Performance Report which summarized their work:
System Stability: Uptime consistently above 90%
Reduced Error Rates: per page system time outs or failures from 6+% to 0.75%
System Capacity: 50,000 simultaneous users, 20-30 minutes per user for 800K per day
Software Fixes: 400+ Bugs Eliminated
Real-time Monitoring: Dedicated team focused on site monitoring and instant incident response
Improved Response Times: from 8 seconds to under 1 second
There was also Improved Window Shopping for users.
To a layman, these results seem adequate. To anyone familiar with commercial software development, they are far below what we or any of our clients would consider acceptable. This is not what professional software developers should deliver, nor what taxpayers should accept.
Review of Relaunch Accomplishments
I’m quite surprised others haven’t provided a technical review of the December 1 relaunch:
System Metrics: 90% up time (One Nine Availability is Awful)
Why do people think 90% availability is acceptable? Even their data showing 95% is awful for a web site. That’s not equivalent to an A in class.
90% up time means it’s down 10% or 2.4 hours per day. 95% is still down an hour. Most web sites have hosting uptime based on the number of 9’s. For instance, 3 nines means 99.9% up time. There are 8760 hours per year (365 days x 24 hours per day). A 99.9% availability means it’s down 8 hours a year. 99.99% availability is less than one hour down per year. High volume commercial web sites strive for 5 nines or less than 10 minutes of down time per year.
I have never heard of any web site or client expecting or satisfied with one 9 availability.
Error Rates Below 1% is Still Pretty Bad
99% sounds good for a class exam, but it’s not good for software. How can a production web site have a 0.75% error rate? The rate seems to be based on the number of pages which is far worse than users. If it’s based on users, with the 50,000 capacity, that’s 375 errors. But when it’s based on pages, assuming each user goes through 50 pages, 18,750 of their 2.5 million pages fail. That means 37.5% of users crash (18,750 divided by 50,000).
Of more concern is the cause of the errors. Software either works or it doesn’t. It doesn’t randomly fail. Is the platform failing 0.75% of the time without knowing why? That would be disturbing and could indicate lots of different bugs. If the contractors don’t know what’s causing the crashes in their buggy code, that raises very serious security implications.
Or do they know if people perform certain tasks that the system will always crash, and they expect people to do that only 0.75% of the time? Still not good, but better.
Beyond crashing bugs, the site may run without crashing but fail to perform properly such as the problems submitting accurate data to the insurance companies. Those non-crashing failures aren’t even part of this error rate which is already too high for a production system.
Capacity of only 50,000?
This is a very strange metric. One usually measures website traffic based on number of page views or transactions. The number of users can be supported by adding more bandwidth and instances of the application on more servers. The capacity issues comes from what people are doing. If they are browsing static pages (not entering data), the number of simultaneous users should be much larger. Even if they are entering data, the capacity to save the data should be much higher than 50,000.
It’s not clear what is causing the 50,000 bottleneck. It shouldn’t be the front-end web application. That should be designed to efficiently save user inputs. The users aren’t entering a lot of information in the grand scheme of data entry systems.
A well designed application would separate the real-time user experience from the more capacity constrained data lookup requirements that may have bottlenecks caused by slow legacy systems at the IRS, HHS, INS, etc. This simply means that the user would enter their information quickly, the system would process it offline, and an email would notify them when the verifications were complete.
Capacity Limitations are Odd
The Healthcare.gov web site begs the use of a commercial cloud provider that can automatically support the fluctuating volumes of users. A web site needs to accommodate the largest number of users, not the average. The large volume spike is ahead of us on the deadline date December 23rd. Volumes would drop considerably after that. By using a commercial cloud provider like Microsoft Azure or Amazon EC2, there would be no need to buy hardware to accommodate huge spikes in users or unnecessary after peak times.
We suspect it’s more profitable for the contractors to buy the extra hardware and configure it poorly than to use commercial cloud providers who would provide a better service for lower costs and profits. The contractors may have also implemented features that for “security reasons”, prevent the use of a commercial cloud provider. It could have justified the creation of their own private system even though it probably decreased security given the crashes they’ve experienced.
Software Fixes and Test Plan
Fixing over 400 bugs is obviously a very good thing, but is that enough? How did so many bugs slip through a Test Plan? And what critical bugs remain that they decided not to fix?
What was the test plan before October 1?
Were the tests conducted and what bugs were known before October 1?
How did they decide to release Healthcare.gov with those bugs?
How many bugs were found after October 1 and how were they identified?
Is the current Test Plan adequate?
What bugs were allowed in the relaunched version?
How are known and new bugs being handled?
Software development never reaches perfection but a good test plan covers the expected extremes to ensure the features work, unexpected errors are gracefully trapped, the system is scalable to support the expected number of users, and the site is secure.
In our experience, buggy software inevitably creates and reveals more bugs as bugs are addressed. Known problems with transmitting data to the insurance companies were already acknowledged. This implies this final step of the process was poorly tested, probably because all the preceding steps were failing. This would indicate many unknown issues that still need to be found and fixed.
If the original developers didn’t know what they were doing, trying to fix their work could be a waste of time. An experienced development team may be able to create a better solution in less time than fixing shoddy design and code from unqualified personnel.
Hardware: Do they Have Development, Testing and Staging Platforms?
The only reason I can see for such low availability is the lack of proper development, testing and staging environments. When we create web sites, our software developers need their own hardware to create and test their work without disrupting the production system. Testers need a separate platform to do their work and report back to the developers about the problems they encounter. And a staging site is necessary to review what’s about to be deployed. When the decision is made to release the new version, a switch can be made to make the staging site the new production one. In a modern host, the switch can be done almost instantaneously. Maybe it’s down for a short period to verify the new site is working, but it’s not down for extensive testing because the testing and staging environments already handle that.
Based on the information before the October 1 debut, it was clear that the standard software environment of development, testing, staging and production did not exist. How the managers of the project could have neglected this fundamental part of software development is beyond me, especially for the amount of money spent to build this site.
Without the proper platforms, it indicates the people didn’t even consider how they’d enhance and maintain the system over time, and further supports my contention that the people who created and managed this website had never been paid to build commercial database web sites before.
It really is software malpractice to not have the proper development, testing, staging and production platforms in place. The contractors should be liable for such neglect and reimburse the taxpayers.
Why Wasn’t the Site Redesigned for Simplicity, Performance, Scalability and Security?
There were many opportunities to redesign the site to make it more consumer friendly, reduce the amount of development and testing resources, support more users, and improve security. I list these missed opportunities based on what I have seen:
The account creation page should be one screen not three. We create multiple pages if entries in one screen impact the following screens. For the Healthcare.gov site, that’s not the case. For instance, if on the first page, you enter an email address that already exists in the system, you’re not told it’s invalid until you finish the third page and are forced to restart. That just adds load on the system. There’s also no need to create a different user name. Why not just use the email address? Most web sites have a one page account creation page, but we understand how having more pages is more profitable to the contractor.
The See Plans feature is a huge improvement for shopping. However, when someone finds and wants to buy a plan without a subsidy, there isn’t a way to do so without creating an account in the system. The site should simply direct the customer to the insurance company since the government is not involved with providing a subsidy. In addition to improving the customer experience, that would reduce the load on the Healthcare.gov web site so they can serve more customers. Get them off the site as quickly as possible!
There’s no need to ask for information that isn’t directly tied to calculating the subsidy. The “nice to have” questions on race can be discarded to improve response time, reduce the time it takes users to fill out the application form, and increase the number of users the site can support. It also increases capacity.
Over the years, we’ve helped lots of organizations design their software solutions, select technologies, specify architectures, and deliver solutions that are reliable, scalable, secure and maintainable. So much of the Healthcare.gov site seems to remain quite fragile.
I don’t mean to slam the many people worked hard to salvage the awful work of the initial developers. I’m sure they didn’t get to spend much time with their families over Thanksgiving. The relaunched site is definitely much better than the original version. But it only looks good when compared to that technical disaster. Can anyone claim the new metrics are acceptable for an enterprise quality, nationwide public site as important as this?
How Could the Federal Government Spend So Much and Get So Little?
The government contractors in the Healthcare.gov project continue to make fortunes after delivering a technical disaster. Unfortunately, this is common among IT projects delivered by large government contractors. Each year the government spends billions for poorly designed or non-functional systems that never even get deployed.
When I wrote my original blog post about Healthcare.gov, I thought the web site was created by incompetent people. Now I believe that in addition to being incompetent or inexperienced, decisions were made to maximize contractor profits.
This is philosophically different from the way we think at FMS. We always want to deliver functional systems on-budget and on-time. We take pride in creating solutions that don’t require additional work to fix them. As a small firm, we’re held accountable for our deliverables. If we fail, we would never be invited back. For large government IT contractors, it’s a totally different world.
Over the years, many large IT government contractors have abused taxpayers so often that they forgot the public would actually use Healthcare.gov and judge their performance. Even now, with their legions of lawyers and media spin, they are deflecting the story to blame government officials, other contractors, etc. without taking any responsibility. I agree there were problems with other parties, but that’s in addition to their own behavior.
Charge Extra for What Should be Included
Government contractors are experts at adding change orders and generating more revenues for features that should be already included. For instance, we are now hearing about problems with data security for the Healthcare.gov site. Security should be implemented from the beginning. Anyone with any experience collecting personal information such as social security numbers and birthdays knows that. However, the government contractors who won these contracts based on “past performance” suddenly suggest others are to blame for not specifying it earlier. That’s like buying a car and discovering brakes were an add-on. No, it should be included without asking for it. Storing data requires doing it securely.
Too Big to Fire
Given the awful work delivered on October 1, there’s no chance that the same team can be trusted to deliver a functional system. They already showed the world what they considered shipping quality, yet they remain. Unfortunately, our existing procurement system keeps these large government contractors because they are simply Too Big to Fire.
No Accountability for Large Technology Contractors
A small government contractor that performed so badly would not be allowed back into these agencies. The large ones can deflect the blame and legally challenge any attempt to hold them accountable. They never issue refunds, and in fact, profit from their mistakes with awards of new contracts and change orders. They are effectively not held accountable for their awful past performance, so the disasters repeat themselves whether it’s at HHS, FBI, Air Force, IRS, etc. The federal government is littered with expensive projects that were never used or functional, but highly profitable for the contractors.
Our Government Contracting System Encourages This
What happened with Healthcare.gov is exactly what our system encourages contractors to do. Had the contractors finished on time and properly, they would have made less money than delivering a flawed system. The government has tried to privatize its services by using outside contractors. Unfortunately, these government contractors are specialists at getting government contracts and milking taxpayers more than their technical ability. They would never survive in the private sector.
Policy Makers Now Have Political Risk for Technology Decisions
This is the first time an administration has paid such huge political cost for mismanaging technology. Prior to this, Presidents understood they were responsible for the economy, jobs, wars, terrorism, crime, responding to natural disasters, etc. They never realized there was political risk with technology. President Reagan wasn’t blamed for the Space Shuttle exploding, but this administration has become responsible for this web site disaster.
Contractor Goals and Values Do Not Align with Policy Makers
Frankly, I don’t think the politicians have any better handle for designing rockets or web sites. They relied on contractors and these contractors misled them. The policy makers don’t realize the goals and values of the contractors differ from theirs. Watching our leaders say the self-serving things their contractors tell them is even more embarrassing. Those contractors are not your friends!
Lobbying and Post-Retirement Jobs Drive Business
Some government officials are swayed by promises of post-retirement jobs at the contractors they supervise. Look at all the former program managers, contracting officers, Congressmen, admirals and generals at these government contractors and their lobbyists to understand how business is done.
Contractors get on contracting vehicles like the IDIQ for Healthcare.gov (termed “Licenses to Hunt”), then send in their well connected people to get contracts directly or wire contracts by “helping” draft requests for proposals (RFPs) favoring their organization. Perfectly legal. Not taxpayer friendly.
Bipartisan Reform Required
This is a bipartisan issue because unless IT government contracting is reformed, this is going to bite future politicians/policymakers of both parties. They do not have the training or experience to manage these technology projects. Especially when the contractors are run by used car salesmen who say, “You should get the undercoating” and the government people are technically unqualified to say “No”.
Technology Accountability Office (TAO)
We need the creation of a Technology Accountability Office (TAO), similar to the GAO to help agencies properly manage and buy these solutions, or an agency that manages large IT projects so the Best Practices are dispersed across the agencies. Right now, politicians have no clue whether a project should cost $1 million or $100 million, and whether it can be done in 3 months or 3 years. It’s total chaos and taxpayers are paying the tab.
Here are a few opportunities where I’ve spoken about these issues.
November 30: Fox & Friends Live Interview with Clayton Morris
A one-on-one interview with Clayton Morris for four minutes discussing how large government contractors profit from delivering systems that don’t work: “If we follow the money, we’ll see the stink in the system…Too Big to Fire”
November 26: On the Record with Kimberly Guilfoyle
Greta van Susteren is on vacation, so I chatted with Kimberly who was in New York City while I was on Greta’s studio in Washington, DC.
“Over time, I’m beginning to see that these government contractors who took over this project have essentially made every decision that favors them as much as possible – to maximize the cost to taxpayers, to maximize their profits.”
I’ve unexpectedly become a national technical “expert” on the problems plaguing the Healthcare.gov web site for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). By documenting the problems from my experience trying to use the site on the first day, I was among the first to warn that the problems were VERY serious. Much more serious than the initial suggestions that crashes were due to too many users. Based on my software development experience and how awful Healthcare.gov is, I sensed the site was created by people who may have never created a scalable, database web site before. My blog posts went viral:
“It’s poorly designed,” said Luke Chung, the president of a database company in Virginia who has publicly criticized the site in recent days. “People higher up are given the excuse that there are too many users. That’s a convenient excuse for the managers to pass up the chain.”
IT developer Luke Chung, who supports the health law, blogged scathingly about his experience logging into healthcare.gov. “To deliver such low quality results requires multiple process breakdowns. It just proves you can create bad solutions independent of the choice of technology…it wouldn’t pass a basic code review. It appears the people who built the site don’t know what they’re doing, never used it, and didn’t test it.”
“It wasn’t designed well, it wasn’t implemented well, and it looks like nobody tested it,” said Luke Chung, an online database programmer.
Chung supports the new health care law but said it was not the demand that is crashing the site. He thinks the entire website needs a complete overhaul.
“It’s not even close. It’s not even ready for beta testing for my book. I would be ashamed and embarrassed if my organization delivered something like that,” he said.
October 9: CNN Situation Room with Wolf Blitzer
I was featured in an article on CNN entitled Obamacare glitches known ahead of time? Brian Todd came by the office to learn more about the challenges I encountered and the web site actually crashed while I was showing it.
Database expert Luke Chung has suddenly become an expert on the failings of the Obamacare computer system, all because it kept crashing as he tried to get a quote. Dave Ross and Luke go in depth on what Luke found after he dug into it (stunning ineptitude) and how he could fix it easily for a fraction of the cost. Whether you’re a geek or not, you’ll enjoy this fascinating conversation.
It’s my most in depth interview on the HealthCare.gov website. It includes my experience meeting with the House Energy and Commerce Committee staffers on Thursday, ways to improve the system, and how the Affordable Care Act can help FMS and other small businesses. I also suggested at the end of the show that our consulting team could rebuild the site for $1 million, and that I’d be embarrassed to accept so much. I think I can stand by that, but I probably should have checked with my managers first. 🙂
Two weeks after the government’s healthcare exchange website was launched , it is receiving intense criticism from Americans trying to sign up, former White House staffers, and even a software programmer, who says the site looks like “amateur hour.”
At 1:36: Tom Costello asks, “When you see this as a software programmer, what does it say to you. Luke replied: “Amateur Hour. It looks like it was created by someone who has never delivered commercial software before….A user should never see this. This would barely make beta testing.”
2:07: Experts say a lot of work needs to be done: “If they don’t change management, this project is doomed. Because we’ve already seen what the existing management considers ready for shipping, and it’s not.”
October 17: NBC Nightly News with Tom Costello
I also appeared on the evening news with a different clip from the same interview:
The company that built the botched website where people are supposed to sign up for the Obama’s health care exchanges has spent millions of dollars developing Healthcare.gov, but people are still having trouble signing up. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.
At 1:54: Tech experts say the problems with the US web site are serious. Luke says: “It doesn’t work. It’s supposed to get you a quote. It doesn’t do that.”
Luke Chung owns a software database company. If this was your product, what would you say? “I’d be embarrassed, and I’d use language with my development team that couldn’t be on the air. This is ridiculous.”
“It’s just an awful website…As I was using it, the system kept crashing on me. And as soon as it started crashing, I was like ‘Oh, my God, this system is not ready for prime time.’ The types of crashes I was experiencing had nothing to do with too many users. It was just bad…They had developers who I sensed had never been paid to create software before. It was really amateurish. It looks like it was their first job…The programming was really bad; it looks like it wasn’t tested, and even if they had programmed it properly and tested it, the design was wrong. So it really didn’t matter whether they did it right…They haven’t thought through the buying process…$200 million at $200 an hour is a million man hours, 500 man years. How did they have time to use 500 man-years? Or triple that, 1500 man years..This is just filling out a paper form and getting a subsidy…It shouldn’t be that complicated.”
October 24: MSNBC Chris Jansing Show
A relatively lengthy eight minute interview where I evaluate the existing system and point out the problems with federal contractors. Chris Jansing does a nice job challenging some of my conclusions: “It’s just an awful web site”
Healthcare.gov to ‘work smoothly’ by end of November
White House economic advisor Jeff Zeints has said that by the end of November — just five weeks away — the federal healthcare website will be working smoothly for the vast majority of users. NBC’s Tom Costello reports.
Starting at 1:50, I make a few comments:
“Every time I come to my application, it says it’s incomplete…It’s extremely difficult to take over someone else’s code, figure out what’s wrong with it, and fix it. Sometimes you have to throw it away and start from scratch.”
Tom Costello concluded from my comments that I didn’t believe the new team would be able to fix the site by the end of November. While I believe that will be a challenging deadline, my contention all along is that this website is not that difficult to implement. With the proper design and development team, they could create a functional version of Healthcare.gov in five weeks. Their families, however, shouldn’t expect to see them much over Thanksgiving weekend.
October 26: Fox & Friends interview by Clayton Morris
Unfortunately, I haven’t received a clip of the episode. Will post it if/when we receive it.
November 5: Sean Hannity Radio Show
Discussing the Healthcare.gov mess, what to do about it, and how the government contractors charged so much and delivered so little. Begins with Congressional inquiries of the CGI Federal contractors before my interview starts. I start a bit after the 2 minute mark (total 10 minutes)
Luke Chung, president and founder of FMS, a software development firm based in Virginia, suggested the contractors should not try “to fix something that’s bad.”
“It’s like polishing a turd. Either way, you still have a turd,” Chung said bluntly.
He criticized the design of the site, and said it didn’t need to be so complex.He said a much simpler site would serve its purpose better, make it easier for the public to use and would likely only take a month to build.
Not my classiest quote, but you never know what a reporter will use after an extended interview. Here are the recommendations I’ve made for a better design and simpler implementation of the web site: Creating a Healthcare.gov Web Site that Works
“When I visited HealthCare.gov on October 1, that was the worst piece of software I’ve ever experienced in my life,” said Luke Chung, founder and CEO of the software company FMS. “It had nothing to do with too many users. It couldn’t serve one user.”
Chung, who is testifying in front of the House Oversight committee today, said these technical issues are the most frustrating.
“I have contended all along that this is not that difficult of a project,” he said. “It doesn’t provide health care, it doesn’t even provide insurance. It’s just a form to apply for a subsidy to get health insurance. It’s automating a paper form. It shouldn’t be that hard.”
“Technically, this is not that difficult,” Chung added. “It shouldn’t cost more than $10 million. And it should be something that can be done in a couple of months.”
“The idea that it would be perfect is never. All systems are never perfect. It’s never perfectly secure or functioning,” Chung said. “If you discovered hundreds of bugs on the initial launch, there are hundreds more or multiples of that that haven’t been discovered yet.”
November 13: House Homeland Security Committee
I was invited to testify before the House Homeland Security Committee. I provided a written testimony and gave a five minute opening statement before answering questions from Chairman McCaul.
Quoted in this article based on my testimony yesterday before the House Homeland Security Committee.
“You would assume that for hundreds of millions of dollars it would be a secure site”
Was interviewed by the article’s authors on November 18th for additional research into how the contractors took advantage of taxpayers.
November 14: Sean Hannity Radio Show
My third appearance on Sean Hannity’s radio show. I’ve become his “technical expert” and we discussed how the Healthcare.gov government contractors abused taxpayers in addition to being inept. Also discussed how the website could be designed properly and how we created the Logistics Support System for the United Nations, deployed in 80 countries, for under $500K. And that platform can be localized in any language while Healthcare.gov was supposed to also be in Spanish and they don’t even have that.
In the month and a half since Healthcare.gov debuted, I think everyone has finally accepted how technically awful the website is. Maybe this will be the end of my media attention.
November 22: CNN Situation Room by Brianna Keilar and Wolf Blitzer
While attending a week-long conference at Microsoft, I was asked to comment on the need for anonymous shopping on the Healthcare.gov website. I was taped from their Seattle studio, hence the Space Needle backdrop:
I appear at 1:50 for a short quote in this 4:30 story:
“This is something people expect when they visit any web site to not disclose any personal information until they’re at a point where they want to make a commitment to buy.”
November 26: On the Record with Kimberly Guilfoyle
Greta van Susteren is on vacation, so I chatted with Kimberly who was in New York City while I was on Greta’s studio in Washington, DC. We discussed how these contractors are “Too Big to Fire”
“Over time, I’m beginning to see that these government contractors who took over this project have essentially made every decision that favors them as much as possible – to maximize the cost to taxpayers, to maximize their profits.”
I’ve been a technical resource for Robert Pear of the New York Times since he quoted me in an article that kicked off all this media attention on October 8th.
Yesterday we chatted about how a web site needs to be built to support maximum volume which will come on the deadline date. Quite a challenge since they can’t even support the early volume. His article appears on the front page:
Luke Chung, the president of FMS, a database company in Virginia, said building the website to handle 50,000 simultaneous users was “not unreasonable.” But he said the government must be prepared to handle much larger numbers at peak times like Dec. 23, just as the Internal Revenue Services does at the tax filing deadline in April.
After confirming I wasn’t involved with the Healthcare.gov project, I was interviewed by Leigh Ann Caldwell about the new rollout while trying to board to flight at BWI:
Luke Chung, president and founder of Virginia-based software development company FMS Inc., said success for the website would be determined by both the number of users as well as how long they are in the system. He compared it to a highway, noting that 50,000 people traveling 60 miles per hour is smooth traffic while the same number going 10 miles per hour is a jam…Chung cited December 23 as the most significant deadline, noting that demand would be “huge” because people by nature wait until the last minute to act.
The Obama administration has just one day to get its Healthcare.gov website running more efficiently, but officials are already trying to limit expectations once again.
Taped from sunny Sarasota, FL over Thanksgiving weekend, this was the lead story of the evening news. Thought a beach shoot would be better but they said they’d have to explain that. Starting at 0:45, I make a few comments in response to Secretary Sebelius’ comments that people should use the new Healthcare.gov web site during off-peak hours:
“It tells me the system isn’t full baked. This system should be able to accommodate as many people who want to get on as possible.”..cut to President Obama…”50,000 is not a number that’s unheard of for websites to be able to support at one time. So I think the challenge is not just the number of users, but whether there are still bugs in the system that will prevent the process from running smoothly.”
November 30 Today Show with Kristin Welker
A portion of my taped interview yesterday was also included in the following morning’s Today Show at 1:06:
“The system either works or it doesn’t work….the 50,000 number that they’ve put out is a little ambiguous because what one wants to know is how many people per hour can get through the system.”
November 30: CNN with Tory Dunnan
Tory Dunnan had a Skype call with me to better understand the capacity of the relaunched Healthcare.gov site. I now know that I need better lighting for a Skype call. This interview was cut into multiple stories that aired all day long. Here’s one of them appearing at 1:30:
“So the challenge isn’t how many lanes do you have on the highway, but it’s how fast the cars can go down the highway. Because if there’s any breakdown, you can have a big traffic jam and pile up behind you.”
A one-on-one interview with Clayton Morris for four minutes discussing how large government contractors profit from delivering systems that don’t work: “If we follow the money, we’ll see the stink in the system…Too Big to Fire”
Featuring Sarasota Bay behind me.
December 2: MSNBC News Nation with Tamron Hall
I appeared on a panel with three others for a live interview discussing the relaunched Healthcare.gov web site. Tried to explain how software works to better understand the expected 1% error rate since software either works or doesn’t.
Do they expect 1% of the people to crash for unknown reasons or do they know certain situations will always crash and only expect 1% of the people to do that. Frankly, I don’t understand how anyone develops software with expected failure rates like this.
The contract for the Healthcare.gov site has moved from CGI Federal to Accenture, but Accenture doesn’t really have a better team to put in place. In the typical large government contractor world, the winner of a contract simply hires the existing team and moves them to their payroll. The people who do the work remain and change their business cards. Do we really expect significant improvements from a team that created the original site and thought it was ready for the public?
“This appears to be a typical government contract shuffle,” Luke Chung, the president of FMS, a software development company in Vienna, Va., said of the handoff. “A new company wins the contract and hires many of the old people. It happens all the time in government.”
Due to the media attention I’ve attracted on Healthcare.gov, I’ve been invited by the US House of Representatives Committee on Homeland Security to testify about the website. This committee is responsible for all security issues on .GOV web sites.
The hearing is at the Cannon House Office Building and starts at 10 AM on November 13, 2013. This is a formal testimony that I provide under oath.
There will be two panels providing testimony. In the first panel are:
Ms. Roberta “Bobbie” Stempfley
Acting Assistant Secretary
Office of Cybersecurity and Communications
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
Ms. Soraya Correa
Enterprise Services Directorate
U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services
U.S. Department of Homeland Security
I will be on the second panel with one other person: Waylon Krush, CEO of Lunarline, Inc. We will each have an opportunity to provide a five minute statement, followed by questions from the Congressmen that will switch between Republicans and Democrats.
Additionally, we provide written testimony for the public record. I have submitted these files:
The event is open to the public with limited seating on a first-come, first-serve basis.
The testimony took place in the committee chambers.
The first panel took over two and a half hours. By the time my panel was called, all the Congressmen had left with the exception of Chairman McCaul.
My testimony is split between two video files. Panel 2 starts with Chairman McCaul’s introduction at 2:44, and my testimony at 2:45:20 for five minutes. The other speaker gives his statement, and the Chairman asks questions at 2:56:18 (Video 1)
Here’s a clip of Chairman McCaul’s introduction of me.
The testimony continues in Video 2 with some questions from Chairman McCaul and I describe how government contractors take advantage of taxpayers.
Background on the Healthcare.gov Technology Problems
My blog post on October 1st, Healthcare.gov is a Technological Disaster, described my experience using the Affordable Care Act’s Healthcare.gov website on its first day. Based on my experience, I could tell the Obamacare site was a technical mess independent of the number of users on the system. However, “Too many users” was a convenient and politically positive excuse the contractors and administration attributed to the failure of the website. It took about a week before the press began to understand that wasn’t the case. Because of my blog post, I ended up in a New York Times article, the national broadcasts of CBS, CNN and Fox News, and a few radio shows (links are in my prior blog post). I was also invited by the House Energy and Commerce Committee staffers on Capitol Hill to meet them to help them better understand what was and wasn’t working and why.
Solutions for Improving Healthcare.gov
I dislike complainers who don’t offer solutions, so I feel obligated to offer some constructive ideas for creating a functional Healthcare.gov website. I’m not being paid to work on the Healthcare.gov web site and don’t have the actual specifications of what needs to be created, but based on my experience building database solutions and understanding load balancing, I offer the following ideas to consider.
Understanding the Buying Process for Health Insurance
It’s important to understand what the web site should do. The primary mistake the designers of the system made was assuming that people would visit the web site, step through the process, see their subsidy, review the options, and select “buy” a policy. That is NOT how the buying process works. It’s not the way people use Amazon.com, a bank mortgage site, or other insurance pricing sites for life, auto or homeowner policies. People want to know their options and prices before making a purchase decision, often want to discuss it with others, and take days to be comfortable making a decision. Especially when the deadline is months away. What’s the rush?
The existing process acts as if a retail website asked for your credit card number before showing what you could buy and their prices. Almost all sites let you browse without creating a user name. Retailers want you to see what’s available as quickly and easily as possible. People often visit multiple times before buying. Only after making a purchase decision should personal information be collected to complete the transaction.
The web site needs to reflect this and support a more common buying process.
Here’s an overview showing three distinct processes that flow into each other (or people buy a policy at their step and leave the system). A critical part is offering a comparison matrix at each level so consumers can quickly see the differences between the insurance policies.
(click for larger image)
The first one gives policy options and non-subsidized quotes. People can click to purchase the policy from the insurance company. If so, they leave Healthcare.gov and the government is no longer involved.
The second provides a subsidy estimate and uses the same display as the first but with and without subsidized prices. People can also click to buy the policy without a subsidy and leave the system, or they can officially apply for a subsidy.
The third is the actual application for the subsidy and the only path which collects Personally Identifiable Information (PII). Higher security is necessary for this.
The first two do not require PII and would not require high security. That means a commercial cloud service such as Microsoft Azure could be used to host the site and adjust to high traffic loads. It would support people shopping and browsing multiple times before buying without the need to invest in hardware or bandwidth.
With this improved design, only a small portion of the site’s traffic would be in the final subsidy application portion. That can be isolated with high security and for much lower volumes of users since people would only apply once. Hassling people at this stage with lots of personal questions is acceptable since people are serious about purchasing.
User Experience Goals
These are some objectives for creating a great user experience:
Quickly get the unsubsidized insurance rate quotes and policies (no login required)
Easily compare among insurance policies based on features and price
Easily select and subscribe with an insurance company without a subsidy
Quickly receive an estimate of a subsidy without having to provide personally identifiable, confidential information
Easily compare among insurance policies based on features and subsidized prices
Do not ask unnecessary questions such as race that don’t impact plans, prices, or subsidies
Formally apply for the subsidy (login and personal information required)
Select a subsidized policy and pass the appropriate information so the insurance company can validate the subscriber’s information and receive the subsidy
Once policy options are offered, allow users to create a login to save their inputs, and get back into the system to recover their work-in-progress. This would be required with the formal subsidy application but not necessary for the other options.
Technical “Back Office” Goals
Performance: The system should move people through the process as quickly as possible.
Collecting Information: It should not ask for any information that’s not required for generating the policy options and prices.
Fewer Screens: Rather than having one screen per question, multiple questions should be asked in as few screens as possible. People know how to scroll. Extra screens should only be added if they depend on answers from previous screens.
Data Security: The first part of data security is to NOT collect sensitive information. Sensitive information should only be collected from people actually applying for the subsidy.
Data Integrity: All database changes need to be in transactions with commitments and rollback on failure. Situations where accounts are partially created with a valid user name and no account details should never occur.
No Other Connections During Data Entry: The system should not be connecting to other data sources while the user is entering data. Just collect the data.
Offline Processing: Once the user enters all their data for a subsidy quote, a separate system processes the applications and interfaces with the other systems to validate the data and calculate the subsidy. By separating this process from the user’s online experience, problems with connections to other systems do not impact the user.
Email Notification: Once a subsidy is calculated, an email is sent to the user inviting them to log into the system to see their options
Notification to Insurers: Web pages and web services to allow real-time views of the status of applications selecting the insurer’s policies.
Commercial Cloud Hosting: Using a commercial cloud platform would provide automatic scalability to meet fluctuating levels of users without having to make hardware purchases. By eliminating the need to collect and store sensitive user data for most of the website, commercial cloud hosting and its benefits are available without security concerns.
Management and interested parties should have system dashboards:
Real-time Displays: Monitor user progress with summary tables and graphs showing the status of people moving through different stages of the system.
Basic Business Intelligence: Summary and drill-down details by state, date, hour, etc.
System Transparency: Provide a public view of some data in a cached mode (updated daily or hourly, but not real-time).
Here is how the goals could be implemented for the Healthcare.gov web site:
The initial form asks people to select their state. If the visitor is in a state that has their own system, ship them to those sites, otherwise proceed with the next step in the federal system
Collect the information necessary to create the unsubsidized options. I was told there were five or so pieces of information necessary to generate the unsubsidized rates (e.g. gender, year of birth, family status, smoking status, etc.)
Display the available plans with options to compare and filter them easily based on plan level (gold, silver, bronze, etc.), provider, price, etc. Should be similar to retail web sites like Best Buy or Staples showing different products and their features in a matrix comparison, with buttons to get more details and a button to select one to buy. One would expect users to come to this site multiple times over multiple days to learn about their options before making a purchase.
An option to save the inputs. This would be the first time to create a simple account to collect user information (which does not include things like social security numbers, birthdates, or names). A simple user name (email address) and password, with a standard email confirmation that doesn’t have a time limit. This would allow users to get back to the previous screen without re-entering their data.
An option to get a subsidized price estimate. If the person chooses this option, they create a simple account because highly sensitive information will not be collected. The account is simply to retrieve the user’s entries. The user provides the information necessary to calculate the prices without having to lookup data from government sources. The user can enter their values for income and whatever other factors impact generating a subsidy estimate. Just like bank web sites let you enter basic information to get a mortgage or car loan rate before you apply, Healthcare.gov should do the same. This would allow the site to create quotes quickly without having to bog down or wait for the other sites such as the IRS, Experian, etc. This minimizes the impact of too many users. Once the estimated subsidies are calculated, a display similar to #3 above would show the options.
Finally, applying for the subsidy. Once someone decides they want a particular policy, they can officially apply for a subsidy. This is the first time personal data needs to be entered. The system should collect the data as quickly as possible without having to validate the information while the user is entering it. Once all the data is collected, the user is informed via email when the subsidy calculation is ready.
A separate background process calculates the subsidy requests and looks up the necessary data from the different sources. If any of those linked systems is unavailable, it’s no big deal since it doesn’t impact the user on the web site. The user is already gone and waiting for an email. Once the calculation is generated (or if it couldn’t be generated), the user is notified via email and they can view the results by logging back into their account.
For management, there should be dashboards with tables and graphs showing what’s happening. No more excuses of not knowing how many people are in each phase of the process, how many have received quotes or enrolled, etc. For transparency, some of this information should be publicly available updated at least daily.
I’m not sure whether the people designing and developing the site will find these suggestions helpful. There’s obviously lots of details not included in my proposal, but I’m confident my basic design is a significant improvement over the original site. It would provide a better user experience, be much easier and faster to develop, easier to test, and more scalable and secure. Was it that tough to envision earlier?
Let’s remember, this website remains the automation of a paper form. It’s not as hard as providing healthcare.