The Price of Not Starting Right: The Affordable Care Act ProjectThe Paid Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA a.k.a. Obamacare) political pinball is sure to bounce around for some time, focused mainly on the "who" and "why" behind what happened to the system and its web portal, and doing some damage to various reputations in and out of government.

Peel back that layer of the situation, however, and we can see that the “what,” “how,” and “when” of the problems could have some valuable -- and apolitical -- lessons for major government systems efforts … a cautionary tale might be a better word.

I have attempted below to sift the public testimony and reporting to find and explore some of those lessons. What I found applies across party and policy lines, growing instead from the relationships among government agencies, contracting communities and legislatures.

The “How” - Contracting

It’s an oft-ignored truism that in government, how a project is contracted will impact its chances for success. Over time, governments, especially federal, have instituted laws and regulations aimed at providing contracting approaches that minimize abuse. To some extent this has worked but at the cost of often rigid regulations that can seriously compromise contracting efforts, especially if the vehicle chosen isn't appropriate for the nature of the effort being contemplated.

So, it appears with the PPACA system, apparently procured using a vehicle called the IDIQ or “Indefinite Delivery/Indefinite Quantity.” IDIQ, similar to the GSA “Multiple Award Schedule” contract, was designed to shorten and simplify situations where the contractor and buying agency have an existing relationship. Rather than start from scratch each time a new requirement appears -- usually taking many months -- an agency, having pre-certified a number of contractors, merely issues a task order contract to one or more of them under the IDIQ and immediately moves ahead.

The reporting and testimony about PPACA suggests that the involved contracts took the form of task orders under an existing Health and Human Services department IDIQ contract on which 16 contractors had been pre-certified. This fact alone suggests that there was probably no true competition among the hundreds of contractors and expertise available in the marketplace. Instead, the government apparently requested bids from some of the certified contractors -- four of the 16, according to news reports -- and chose the one they thought most appropriate -- or best connected -- calling that process “competition.” It was, as we now know, anything but.

Unfortunately, the IDIQ also assumes that the buying agency will conduct the necessary diligence to select a contractor fully capable of doing the particular job at hand. As you might imagine, this doesn't always happen and in the case of the PPACA effort, it appears to have failed almost completely. The apparent “lead” contractor for this project, although certified by HHS and CMS, had a less than stellar record in complex, web-centric transaction support efforts of the type required for the PPACA. From that start, without careful attention to the organization and management of the effort, all manner of problems could arise … as they have.

IDIQ contracts as well, per the Federal Acquisition Regulations, are exempt from protest, closing off the process by which losing or ignored competitors may question an award. Further, if the contract is of the “time and materials” type popular in the IDIQ community, meaning that the government is buying hours and materials with no guarantee of a particular successful outcome, the already tenuous legal link between payment and performance is virtually eliminated.

The “What and When” - Planning and Approach

Another truism in the automation world holds that with sufficient technology, the effort will go acceptably well, and failure must be due to a lack of technology. That same implicit assumption also holds that most problems can be solved if enough additional technology is brought to bear. Neither is true if the technology is built and deployed on a faulty design. Indeed, it is usually not the technology that fails but the way it is deployed and the assumptions made about how and how well it will work in the particular setting for which it is intended.

Another sad fact is that in the case of faulty design, loading on a ton of additional technology without a serious redesign effort, as reports suggest is being done with the PPACA system, is often like putting more cargo weight on a sinking ship.

Who’s watching the store?

In the case of the PPACA, several contractors testified that their portions worked and were ready for launch at the appointed time. Some, when asked about their response to problems they foresaw testified; “that wasn’t part of our tasking.”

One PPACA contractor testified that it did share concerns with the agency in the weeks prior to the launch date, but received no response. If a contract is finalized across a field of contractors and subcontractors and no one is tasked to monitor them, analyze risks and raise red flags, it probably won’t happen and if it is, as perhaps with PPACA, the buying agency will probably ignore it as out of scope.

“How Well” - Management

No matter what a project is attempting to accomplish, there are time-tested means of assuring that it goes where it is supposed to and does so on time and within budget. It appears that most or all of these were either ignored or glossed over in the PPACA project.

Missing Strategic Objectives, Arbitrary Deadlines and No Captain … a Murky Stew

While everyone could probably recite the “get up and running by October 1, 2013” mantra, it appears that there was no strategic plan for how this was to be accomplished in the time and budget available and with acceptable and addressable risks. Instead, contractors were apparently engaged and told to start work with a fixed October 1, 2013 deadline for operation. With no prime contractor -- distinct from “lead” used in PPACA -- responsible for overall strategy, each contractor appears to have approached its tasks in a manner it found most comfortable, assuming that its work would integrate with other parts of the environment when the time came.

If there is one place where the cause of a failed project is to be found, it is this. No strategic plan means no roadmap and no foundation on which tactical decisions may be based, evaluated and if need-be, changed. It also suggests that there was likely no thorough analysis of the constraints under which the project is being undertaken and no assessment of the risks involved.

Hear No Problems, See No Problems and Speak No Delay

In the case of the PPACA, a clear-eyed strategic evaluation might have warned that the operational goals were likely not achievable in the available time and resource setting. So none was done or if done, never considered or acted upon.

Improbable as that may sound, no contractor with millions in fees at stake, wants to raise objections that might stall the project and close the money spigot.

Whose Money Is It, Anyway? Government’s Role

Once a project is begun without effective contracting or strategic planning, it may still be possible to reclaim it with clear and knowledgeable oversight by the government contracting and technical representatives. As the design and development proceeds, the government has the right, and responsibility, to hold critical design reviews with contractors, asking pointed questions, looking closely at risks and mandating that contractors come up with effective mitigation plans.

I have seen this done and while it usually isn't pretty, it can and does work.

Interestingly, this doesn't mean that government people need to be technology experts. Indeed, problems with major efforts like the PPACA system usually start well before technology gets involved and can best be fixed by clear thinking and course corrections where needed. I have worked with government people like this and while they may not be hiding under every rock, they are available.

Oversight also lets contractors know that someone is watching and that shoddy work will not go unnoticed or unpunished. It’s remarkable how that can focus the minds of contractor management, lest the government beats them up in a design review or post launch debrief.

In the case of PPACA, such scrutiny apparently didn’t exist, allowing contractors to do their work and submit their invoices with little or no fear of question, while government representatives congratulated themselves on their ability to spend money and do slick Powerpoint presentations, oblivious to the storms on the horizon.

Where Does This Leave Us?

The majority of government projects and their underlying contracting approaches, if not stellar, proceed and meet at least a minimum threshold of acceptability, some complete remarkably well.

For those that do not, including perhaps the PPACA systems effort, an essential truth stands out. Projects that end poorly usually go off the rails very early in their life-cycle. Indeed, most failed efforts can be traced back to errors and omissions made in the contracting and procurement stage.

While effective contracting doesn't guarantee success, if things aren't right at the outset, problems are virtually guaranteed and their correction is likely to be expensive and painful, ending in complete failure and abandonment, vastly inflated costs or serious underperformance.

In response to this, it would seem that we should look less to the technology -- or fat budget -- being touted for a project and more to the mundane but critical contracting and procurement aspects and to the contracting people who, although like Rodney Dangerfield -- “can’t get no respect,” may literally hold the key to success or failure.

Title image courtesy of fotogiunta (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more from Barry, see his What History Can Teach the Tech Industry About Public Backlash