Healthcare.gov and the Gulf Between Planning and Reality
Data & Society / diggs 2013-11-20
Back in the mid-1990s, I did a lot of web work for traditional media. That often meant figuring out what the client was already doing on the web, and how it was going, so I’d find the techies in the company, and ask them what they were doing, and how it was going. Then I’d tell management what I’d learned. This always struck me as a waste of my time and their money; I was like an overpaid bike messenger, moving information from one part of the firm to another. I didn’t understand the job I was doing until one meeting at a magazine company.
The thing that made this meeting unusual was that one of their programmers had been invited to attend, so management could explain their web strategy to him. After the executives thanked me for explaining what I’d learned from log files given me by their own employees just days before, the programmer leaned forward and said “You know, we have all that information downstairs, but nobody’s ever asked us for it.”
I remember thinking “Oh, finally!” I figured the executives would be relieved this information was in-house, delighted that their own people were on it, maybe even mad at me for charging an exorbitant markup on local knowledge. Then I saw the look on their faces as they considered the programmer’s offer. The look wasn’t delight, or even relief, but contempt. The situation suddenly came clear: I was getting paid to save management from the distasteful act of listening to their own employees.
In the early days of print, you had to understand the tech to run the organization. (Ben Franklin, the man who made America a media hothouse, called himself Printer.) But in the 19th century, the printing press became domesticated. Printers were no longer senior figures — they became blue-collar workers. And the executive suite no longer interacted with them much, except during contract negotiations.
This might have been nothing more than a previously hard job becoming easier, Hallelujah. But most print companies took it further. Talking to the people who understood the technology became demeaning, something to be avoided. Information was to move from management to workers, not vice-versa (a pattern that later came to other kinds of media businesses as well.) By the time the web came around and understanding the technology mattered again, many media executives hadn’t just lost the habit of talking with their own technically adept employees, they’d actively suppressed it.
I’d long forgotten about that meeting and those looks of contempt (I stopped building websites before most people started) until the launch of Healthcare.gov.* * *
For the first couple of weeks after the launch, I assumed any difficulties in the Federal insurance market were caused by unexpected early interest, and that once the initial crush ebbed, all would be well. The sinking feeling that all would not be well started with this disillusioning paragraph about what had happened when a staff member at the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, the department responsible for Healthcare.gov, warned about difficulties with the site back in March. In response, his superiors told him…
[...] in effect, that failure was not an option, according to people who have spoken with him. Nor was rolling out the system in stages or on a smaller scale, as companies like Google typically do so that problems can more easily and quietly be fixed. Former government officials say the White House, which was calling the shots, feared that any backtracking would further embolden Republican critics who were trying to repeal the health care law.
The idea that “failure is not an option” is a fantasy version of how non-engineers should motivate engineers. That sentiment was invented by a screenwriter, riffing on an after-the-fact observation about Apollo 13; no one said it at the time. (If you ever say it, wash your mouth out with soap. If anyone ever says it to you, run.) Even NASA’s vaunted moonshot, so often referred to as the best of government innovation, tested with dozens of unmanned missions first, several of which failed outright.
Failure is always an option. Engineers work as hard as they do because they understand the risk of failure. And for anything it might have meant in its screenplay version, here that sentiment means the opposite; the unnamed executives were saying “Addressing the possibility of failure is not an option.”* * *
The management question, when trying anything new, is “When does reality trump planning?” For the officials overseeing Healthcare.gov, the preferred answer was “Never.” Every time there was a chance to create some sort of public experimentation, or even just some clarity about its methods and goals, the imperative was to deny the opposition anything to criticize.
At the time, this probably seemed like a way of avoiding early failures. But the project’s managers weren’t avoiding those failures. They were saving them up. The actual site is worse—far worse—for not having early and aggressive testing. Even accepting the crassest possible political rationale for denying opponents a target, avoiding all public review before launch has given those opponents more to complain about than any amount of ongoing trial and error would have.
In his most recent press conference about the problems with the site, the President ruefully compared his campaigns’ use of technology with Healthcare.gov:
And I think it’s fair to say that we have a pretty good track record of working with folks on technology and IT from our campaign, where, both in 2008 and 2012, we did a pretty darn good job on that. [...] If you’re doing it at the federal government level, you know, you’re going through, you know, 40 pages of specs and this and that and the other and there’s all kinds of law involved. And it makes it more difficult — it’s part of the reason why chronically federal IT programs are over budget, behind schedule.
It’s certainly true that Federal IT is chronically challenged by its own processes. But the problem with Healthcare.gov was not timeline or budget. The problem was that the site did not work, and the administration decided to launch it anyway.
This is not just a hiring problem, or a procurement problem. This is a management problem, and a cultural problem. The preferred method for implementing large technology projects in Washington is to write the plans up front, break them into increasingly detailed specifications, then build what the specifications call for. It’s often called the waterfall method, because on a timeline the project cascades from planning, at the top left of the chart, down to implementation, on the bottom right.
Like all organizational models, waterfall is mainly a theory of collaboration. By putting the most serious planning at the beginning, with subsequent work derived from the plan, the waterfall method amounts to a pledge by all parties not to learn anything while doing the actual work. Instead, waterfall insists that the participants will understand best how things should work before accumulating any real-world experience, and that planners will always know more than workers.
This is a perfect fit for a culture that communicates in the deontic language of legislation. It is also a dreadful way to make new technology. If there is no room for learning by doing, early mistakes will resist correction. If the people with real technical knowledge can’t deliver bad news up the chain, potential failures get embedded rather than uprooted as the work goes on.
At the same press conference, the President also noted the degree to which he had been kept in the dark:
OK. On the website, I was not informed directly that the website would not be working the way it was supposed to. Had I been informed, I wouldn’t be going out saying “Boy, this is going to be great.” You know, I’m accused of a lot of things, but I don’t think I’m stupid enough to go around saying, this is going to be like shopping on Amazon or Travelocity, a week before the website opens, if I thought that it wasn’t going to work.
Healthcare.gov is a half-billion dollar site that was unable to complete even a thousand enrollments a day at launch, and for weeks afterwards. As we now know, programmers, stakeholders, and testers all expressed reservations about Healthcare.gov’s ability to do what it was supposed to do. Yet no one who understood the problems was able to tell the President. Worse, every senior political figure—every one—who could have bridged the gap between knowledgeable employees and the President decided not to.
And so it was that, even on launch day, the President was allowed to make things worse for himself and his signature program by bragging about the already-failing site and inviting people to log in and use something that mostly wouldn’t work. Whatever happens to government procurement or hiring (and we should all hope those things get better) a culture that prefers deluding the boss over delivering bad news isn’t well equipped to try new things.* * *
With a site this complex, things were never going to work perfectly the first day, whatever management thought they were procuring. Yet none of the engineers with a grasp of this particular reality could successfully convince the political appointees to adopt the obvious response: “Since the site won’t work for everyone anyway, let’s decide what tests to run on the initial uses we can support, and use what we learn to improve.”
In this context, testing does not just mean “Checking to see what works and what doesn’t.” Even the Healthcare.gov team did some testing; it was late and desultory, but at least it was there. (The testers recommended delaying launch until the problems were fixed. This did not happen.) Testing means seeing what works and what doesn’t, and acting on that knowledge, even if that means contradicting management’s deeply held assumptions or goals. In well run organizations, information runs from the top down and from the bottom up.
One of the great descriptions of what real testing looks like comes from Valve software, in a piece detailing the making of its game Half-Life. After designing a game that was only sort of good, the team at Valve revamped its process, including constant testing:
This [testing] was also a sure way to settle any design arguments. It became obvious that any personal opinion you had given really didn’t mean anything, at least not until the next test. Just because you were sure something was going to be fun didn’t make it so; the testers could still show up and demonstrate just how wrong you really were.
“Any personal opinion you had given really didn’t mean anything.” So it is in the government; an insistence that something must work is worthless if it actually doesn’t.
An effective test is an exercise in humility; it’s only useful in a culture where desirability is not confused with likelihood. For a test to change things, everyone has to understand that their opinion, and their boss’s opinion, matters less than what actually works and what doesn’t. (An organization that isn’t learning from its users decided it doesn’t want to learn from its users.)
Given examples of technological success from commercial firms, a common response is that the government has special constraints, and thus cannot develop projects piecemeal, test with citizens, or learn from its mistakes in public. I was up at the Kennedy School a month after the launch, talking about technical leadership and Healthcare.gov, when one of the audience members made just this point, proposing that the difficult launch was unavoidable, because the government simply couldn’t have tested bits of the project over time.
That observation illustrates the gulf between planning and reality in political circles. It is hard for policy people to imagine that Healthcare.gov could have had a phased rollout, even while it is having one.
At launch, on October 1, only a tiny fraction of potential users could actually try the service. They generated concrete errors. Those errors were handed to a team whose job was to improve the site, already public but only partially working. The resulting improvements are incremental, and put in place over a period of months. That is a phased rollout, just one conducted in the worst possible way.
The vision of “technology” as something you can buy according to a plan, then have delivered as if it were coming off a truck, flatters and relieves managers who have no idea and no interest in how this stuff works, but it’s also a breeding ground for disaster. The mismatch between technical competence and executive authority is at least as bad in government now as it was in media companies in the 1990s, but with much more at stake.* * *
Tom Steinberg, in his remembrance of his brilliant colleague Chris Lightfoot, said this about Lightfoot’s view of government and technology:
[W]hat he fundamentally had right was the understanding that you could no longer run a country properly if the elites don’t understand technology in the same way they grasp economics or ideology or propaganda. His analysis and predictions about what would happens if elites couldn’t learn were savage and depressingly accurate.
Now, and from now on, government will interact with its citizens via the internet, in increasingly important ways. This is a non-partisan issue; whichever party is in the White House will build and launch new forms of public service online. Unfortunately for us, the last new technology the government adopted for interacting with citizens was the fax; our senior political figures have little habit of talking to their own technically adept employees.
If I had to design a litmus test for whether our political class grasps the internet, I would look for just one signal: Can anyone with authority over a new project articulate the tradeoff between features, quality, and time?
When a project cannot meet all three goals—a situation Healthcare.gov was clearly in by March—something will give. If you want certain features at a certain level of quality, you’d better be able to move the deadline. If you want overall quality by a certain deadline, you’d better be able to delay or drop features. And if you have a fixed feature list and deadline, quality will suffer.
Intoning “Failure is not an option” will be at best useless, and at worst harmful. There is no “Suddenly Go Faster” button, no way you can throw in money or additional developers as a late-stage accelerant; money is not directly tradable for either quality or speed, and adding more programmers to a late project makes it later. You can slip deadlines, reduce features, or, as a last resort, just launch and see what breaks.
Denying this tradeoff doesn’t prevent it from happening. If no one with authority over the project understands that, the tradeoff is likely to mean sacrificing quality by default. That just happened to this administration’s signature policy goal. It will happen again, as long politicians can be allowed to imagine that if you just plan hard enough, you can ignore reality. It will happen again, as long as department heads imagine that complex technology can be procured like pencils. It will happen again as long as management regards listening to the people who understand the technology as a distasteful act.