Fmr. Obama innovation expert: HealthCare.gov created by "sloppy" contractors
October 22nd, 2013
08:27 AM ET
12 months ago

Fmr. Obama innovation expert: HealthCare.gov created by "sloppy" contractors

Washington (CNN) – A former member of President Barack Obama's technology team says the website where Americans are supposed to be able to enroll in health care exchanges was created by a "sloppy" team of contractors who were selected through a flawed federal procurement process.

Clay Johnson, who served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow beginning in August 2012, wrote in a blog post on October 7 that signs of flaws on Healthcare.gov were apparent from the day it went online, including the use of placeholder text in the site's code.

"The contractors who made this website were at best sloppy, and at worst unqualified for the job," Johnson wrote.

In an interview with CNN, Johnson said the federal government is increasingly relying on a shrinking list of preferred contractors for its IT work in a process that is producing lackluster outcomes.

 "There's been a consolidation of incumbent vendors and they've gotten lazy as a result," Johnson told CNN.  "They haven't kept up with the market."

 The result, Johnson says, is a "new digital divide between the public and private sector."

Selected as part of the first class of White House innovation fellows in August 2012, Johnson worked on a project that developed an online marketplace connecting the government with small tech firms. The fellowships last for six months. Previously Johnson co-founded the tech company that built Obama's 2008 campaign website.

Writing in the post titled "The HealthCare.gov Fiasco," Johnson said the problem originated in the way the federal government selects companies for technology projects – a process he says favors a select number of firms to the exclusion of better-qualified outlets.

"Healthcare.gov got this way not because of incompetence or sloppiness of an individual vendor, but because of a deeply engrained and malignant cancer that's eating away at the federal government's ability to provide effective online services," he wrote.

"It's a cancer that's shut out the best and brightest minds from working on these problems, diminished competition for federal work, and landed us here – where you have half-billion dollar websites that don't work," he wrote, linking to USASpending.gov

Obama on Monday vowed changes were coming to HealthCare.gov that would make the site easier to use for Americans looking to sign up for the exchanges, which are a key element of the President's landmark Affordable Care Act. Later this week, three of the contractors responsible for implementing parts of the exchanges and signup process - CGI, Serco, and Equifax - will testify before a congressional committee about problems on the site.

In a statement, CGI said it and other contractors "are working around the clock for the improvement of HealthCare.gov, a system that is complex, ambitious and unprecedented. We remain confident in our ability to deliver continuous improvement in system performance and a more positive user experience."

A separate posting on Johnson's blog from Monday offered a few ways the site could be fixed, including the recommendation the administration hold the contractors responsible for the poorly-concocted website responsible.

"The problem here isn't just the result of bad programming," he wrote. "It's the result of bad systems and bad architecture from the get-go. When you try and build the world's biggest shopping mall and the only place you can buy your support beams from is a balsa-wood mill, your building is going to collapse."

Opening the website to outside experts will help fix some of the problems, he wrote, but expecting substantial changes in a short amount of time could be unreasonable.

"The best thing that any outside experts can do in any reasonable amount of time is replace some drywall and paint. Otherwise, your experts are going to have to figure out where the balsa-wood is falling apart, and replace it with iron. That takes time."

Johnson said the experts scrambling to repair the technical problems with HealthCare.gov should break it up into smaller parts, bring in a new set of vendors that are "a lot more nimble."

 President Obama's signature legislative achievement deserves better, Johnson said. "This is not up to par," he added.


Filed under: Health care • President Obama
soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Malory Archer

    This is what happens when you hire contractors to do the government's work. No accountability and no recourse, except to never grant them a contract in the future, which is fine with the executives. They'll reap the profits of this one windfall and retire to a life of luxury and grandure. Meanwhile, the rank and file at HHS will become the whipping boys & girls for the latest rethug so-called "scandal". And this will keep happening until the entire procurement process is overhauled (it's been this way for generations).

    October 22, 2013 08:36 am at 8:36 am |
  2. Larry in Houston

    """The contractors who made this website were at best sloppy, and at worst unqualified for the job"'

    on a 1 – 10 scale, I would give them a negative number.

    October 22, 2013 08:41 am at 8:41 am |
  3. rla

    Sloppy contractors hired by a flawed federal process... Really???? That is an admission that the federal government can't do anything right - PS I don't want their sloppy ways trying to run my life !!!!!!

    October 22, 2013 08:41 am at 8:41 am |
  4. rla

    Think this is bad wait until you see the ACA in person!

    October 22, 2013 08:43 am at 8:43 am |
  5. Native Kate

    Sounds like large system implementations at a lot of large corporations . It never goes off 100%, and there are usuallly several major glitches., Clay Johnson sounds like an armchair quarterback. Does he have the experiencebto pull off an unprecedented implementation like this? Tell us Clay. Let's roll up our sleeves and get it on track.

    October 22, 2013 08:49 am at 8:49 am |
  6. jpmichigan

    With something so important to this administration, why would you use sloppy software program, unless the company own by a friend or donor?

    October 22, 2013 09:01 am at 9:01 am |
  7. Lynda/Minnesota

    Hey, CNN. Question for you.

    How long and how far are you folks going carry the anti-Obamacare Republican talking points?
    Just asking, because we "get" that there are glitches and things that need fixing.

    In other news, Facebook is on record stating that its recent glitches have been fixed too.

    October 22, 2013 09:04 am at 9:04 am |
  8. Data Driven

    @Lynda,

    "How long and how far are you folks going carry the anti-Obamacare Republican talking points?"

    Three articles in a row already this morning! Yay!

    And not ONE, not ONE, about how much the GOP shutdown cost. It's only been glancingly referred to in stories about other subjects.

    Healthcare dot gov: $300-$500 million, depending on who you ask
    GOP Shutdown: $24-$48 billion, depending on who you ask

    Well, I guess the utter failure of the GOP's shutdown was enough bad news for the Right this month, according to CNN.

    October 22, 2013 09:27 am at 9:27 am |
  9. Gurgyl

    Computer glitches can be FIXABLE. Just know. Bring best programmers.

    October 22, 2013 09:30 am at 9:30 am |
  10. Rudy NYC

    Gurgyl wrote:

    Computer glitches can be FIXABLE. Just know. Bring best programmers.
    ----------------------
    They might call them problems 'glitches', but some of the problems may require a complete 'do over'.

    October 22, 2013 09:36 am at 9:36 am |
  11. Lynda/Minnesota

    @Data:

    Well, I was going to also ask when CNN planned on covering the rift in the Republican party.

    "I guess the utter failure of the GOP's shutdown was enough bad news for the Right this month, according to CNN".

    You hit the nail on the head. The 24/7 doom and gloom party got their (to quote Sniffit) "fee-fees" hurt.

    October 22, 2013 09:55 am at 9:55 am |
  12. smith

    @Lynda-Its not CNN`s fault the website is junk. They are just reporting the news like everyone else. Maybe you should go on msnbc`s site. Im sure their not reporting any problems with the ACA website.

    October 22, 2013 09:56 am at 9:56 am |
  13. sonny chapman

    Put a STOP PAYMENT on their checks until they fix their damn mess.

    October 22, 2013 10:00 am at 10:00 am |
  14. Rudy NYC

    smith wrote:

    @Lynda-Its not CNN`s fault the website is junk. They are just reporting the news like everyone else. Maybe you should go on msnbc`s site. Im sure their not reporting any problems with the ACA website.
    ------------
    Gong! MSNBC has been reporting on the web site problems as extensively as CNN. Another problem that both CNN and MSNBC have been reporting about is an article in "Salon" about the panel of people interviewed by Hannity on Fox. The six people had a litany of complaints. It turns out none of them had ever visited the web site. Half of them refused to do it. And the woman who was blaming Obamacare because she couldn't obtain insurance due to a pre-existing condition was able to buy cheaper and better insurance through an exchange. It turns out that she did have insurance, despite on-air comments to the contrary. In other words, the six were paid liars. Of course, Fox is reporting none of this to you.

    October 22, 2013 10:07 am at 10:07 am |
  15. Rudy NYC

    sonny chapman

    Put a STOP PAYMENT on their checks until they fix their damn mess.
    -----------------–
    If only it were that simple. It seems that they've built a narrow bridge with too few lanes, and we just might have fewer toll booths than lanes on the bridge. To top it all off, they built the bridge outward from each shore and it doesn't seem to meet in the middle.

    October 22, 2013 10:11 am at 10:11 am |
  16. Rick McDaniel

    Created by inept government officials, is the truth.

    October 22, 2013 10:15 am at 10:15 am |
  17. The Real Tom Paine

    -smith

    @Lynda-Its not CNN`s fault the website is junk. They are just reporting the news like everyone else. Maybe you should go on msnbc`s site. Im sure their not reporting any problems with the ACA website.
    *****************
    If you want wall-to-wall coverage on the website, got to FOX. I'm sure they are covering that at the expense of coverage on the GOP's rift, courtesy of Raphael Cruz, or is that not newsworthy for the average FOXbot?

    October 22, 2013 10:22 am at 10:22 am |
  18. cumulus

    No better way to sound foolish, than repeat what you heard on fox " news" not one, repeat, one serious credible reporter would be caught dead on that station

    October 22, 2013 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  19. Gunderson

    Um,
    Have make sure brain engaged before open mouth. Fix in, pass it on.

    October 22, 2013 10:28 am at 10:28 am |
  20. jboh

    As someone who has had experience w/govt bids, the winning bidder is often more skilled at working the bidding process than doing the job they're bidding on. An astronaut once made a remark about sitting on top a million moving parts, each made by the low bidder. Dick Cheney went from congress to CEO of Haliburton w/o experience because he was an author of the "new" procurement process. Expertise in the job at hand gets trumped by knowing how to work the system.

    October 22, 2013 10:29 am at 10:29 am |
  21. Lynda/Minnesota

    @smith

    Yes. Well, so did the President of the United States admit there are problems with the website. That being said, no doubt all the problems will be fixed in due time.

    Meanwhile shall we as a Nation allow the powers that be correct the mistakes and well ... MOVE ON to more important "things"?

    October 22, 2013 10:36 am at 10:36 am |
  22. smith

    @Rudy-I`ll stick with CNN for my news. The real fair and balanced news source.

    October 22, 2013 10:49 am at 10:49 am |
  23. Data Driven

    @Rick McDaniel,

    "Created by inept government officials, is the truth."

    No it isn't. The site was built by a private company contracted by the government.

    October 22, 2013 10:52 am at 10:52 am |