How federal cronies built -- and botched -- Healthcare.gov

Many contractors for Healthcare.gov site seem to have been picked based on past government work rather than IT expertise

The biggest problem with Healthcare.gov seems simple enough: It was built by people who are apparently far more familiar with government cronyism than they are with IT.

That's one of the insights that can be gleaned from the work done by the Sunlight Foundation Reporting Group, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on government transparency. In a report filed this past week, the group examined why the system broke as horribly as it did: The contracts awarded to those who built it were, by and large, existing government contractors with "deep political pockets."

"All but one of of the 47 contractors who won contracts to carry out work on the Affordable Care Act worked for the government prior to its passage," the report reads. Some of the names ought to be familiar: Northrop Grumman, General Dynamics, Deloitte, and Booz Allen Hamilton, all of whom assumed different roles and worked on different aspects of the project.

As familiar as those names might be, especially to those who follow Beltway lobbying practices, few of them would be as commonly associated with large-scale IT projects as, say, Google, Amazon.com, or Dell would be -- especially when it came to building the public-facing components of the system. (Techdirt concurs.)

Why did they get the work? The report hints at a likely reason: The companies were big lobbyists, with "some 17 contract winners reported spending more than $128 million on lobbying in 2011 and 2012." Granted, some experience with government work is vital for any contractor, and the federal procurement system is geared to favor those already doing government work, but Sunlight pointed out that the list tips heavily toward those with both existing contracts and political leverage.

The most central name in the list of contractors, and the one most closely identified with the outward failure of Healthcare.gov, is CGI Federal, which the Sunlight Foundation describes as "a longtime provider of IT services to the federal government." Most of CGI Federal's previous work centered around technology services for Medicare and Medicaid. According to the New York Times, CGI Federal claimed many problems stemmed from the way the government itself managed the process, including the in-house coordination of the project between subcontractors rather than having a separate contractor do the coordination itself.

All the same, CGI Federal -- which received $88 million for its work since March of this year -- told Congress in September it was indeed ready for the onslaught of users that would come when Healthcare.gov opened to the public. The same was claimed by UnitedHeath subsidiary Quality Software Services, another partner in the project that received $55 million for its work.

One other name in particular on the contractor list probably won't be familiar to readers, but ought to be from now on: Science Applications International Corp., or SAIC. Nominally a defense contractor, SAIC has been involved with many government projects with ghastly end results, such as New York City's fraud- and corruption-riddled $600 million CityTime payroll software boondoggle. When the East Bay Express reported on Oakand, Calif.'s surveillance plan, it was worried about SAIC's involvement in that project as well, not least because the people hiring SAIC for the job seemed unaware of the company's reputation.

SAIC's exact involvement in Healthcare.gov is difficult to determine, in part because a lot of details about who worked on precisely what portions of the project have been hard to come by. The Sunlight Foundation report indicates SAIC had "contracts with the Internal Revenue Service ... for supporting income and family verification procedures required by the health care law."

It also doesn't help that many of the organizations involved are now distancing themselves from the whole project, which seems wise given the scale of this disaster. Compare that attitude with the pride many of them exhibited before Healthcare.gov went online, which was being trumpeted as a marvel of cutting-edge Web engineering. Now it's shaping up to be more an example of the efficacy of political connectedness.

This article, "How federal cronies built -- and botched -- Healthcare.gov," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Get the first word on what the important tech news really means with the InfoWorld Tech Watch blog. For the latest business technology news, follow InfoWorld.com on Twitter.

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