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The $840 Million Web Site

by Bruce Haring

The United States government is the largest buyer of goods and services in the country. With that scale of purchasing power, you’d think that it has enormous leverage to get things done quickly and at a relatively economical cost.

Yet the Government Accountability Office (GAO) today revealed that it has cost $840 million to build a simple, database-driven web site. We’re talking, of course, about the infamous HealthCare.gov, a federal boondoggle if ever there was one.

Testimony by the GAO Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management was released today. William Woods’s statement pretty much describes a system that was created “without effective planning or oversight practices.”

That led to $200 million in “cost overruns” from Sept. 2011 to Feb. 2014. When Accenture was brought on board in January of 2014 to straighten out the mess, its contract was estimated at $91 million. Since then, it jumped to $175 million.

Keep in mind that this is just one sector of government tasks during a certain period of time. Imagine what they’re doing with Social Security and other forms of future federal promises.


The health exchange web site was intended to provide a quick, one-stop service to those seeking health care under the new government program known colloquially as Obamacare. It’s the type of web site that’s been built thousands of times in e-commerce by private enterprises. If you purchase from Amazon.com, for example, you’re using a prototype of the kind of web site HealthCare.gov aspired to become.

Of course, nothing is that simple when it comes to government. Let’s start with the reasons why.
First, the design for the web site was envisioned by people who had no experience in creating something so complex.

The constantly changing requirements for the design created a nightmare for the programming team, which often had to deal with conflicting demands.

Second, the web site was created without any one person in charge of oversight. Coordinating different teams across different companies fell to a handful of lower-level officials, with no one ombudsman overseeing the overall process.

Third, despite the lack of input and oversight, the entire database had to be up and running by a certain date. There was no pushing the date, or going through a trial run to discover all the glitches. By God, it was due and it had to be up and running, thundered many. As a result, short cuts were taken and steps skipped.

The testimony by the GAO can’t do a thing about the prior cost overruns attached to the web site. But given that we live in a country with such strong private sector businesses as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft and other Internet bulwarks, maybe someone, somewhere might get on the phone next time and make a phone call about creating something useful next time there’s a need.


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