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How Crucial is a Systems Integrator? Without One, You Might Wind up with HealthCare.gov

txking/Shutterstock.com

More than a year after the launch of HealthCare.gov, the Department of Health and Human Services’ inspector general is providing a glimpse into some of the initial critical contracting blunders that set the site up for failure.

One of the most obvious missteps cited by auditors in new report released Tuesday? The lack of a lead systems integrator -- a contractor or in-house unit – given responsibility for overseeing all of the project’s moving parts.

And there were many moving parts.

Tasked with creating a single website that could easily serve millions of Americans' health care needs, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reached out to 33 companies and awarded 60 contracts in all.  

“The troubled launch of the Federal Marketplace at HealthCare.gov in October 2013 raised a number of concerns, including questions about the adequacy of CMS’s planning and procurement efforts for this key project under the Affordable Care Act,” the IG report stated.

The former chief information officer for CMS contends this was not an omission so much as a miscommunication, according to the report. Prior to the site’s launch, CMS claims it considered CGI Federal the leader of this project. But CGI, which was one of the main contractors on the project, was apparently left out of the loop.

Needless to say, when embarking on any project, especially one of this magnitude, it is best to make sure everyone is well aware of their responsibilities.

“CMS did not exercise the option to plan for a lead systems integrator to coordinate all contractors' efforts prior to the launch of the Federal Marketplace,” the report stated.

It’s worth noting CMS did rectify this problem soon after the site’s disastrous October 2013 launch, firing CGI and assigning another company, QSSI, the project’s lead systems integrator.

In a statement, an HHS spokeswoman said, “CMS didn’t wait for the IG report to make changes.”

By January, thanks in part to the swift handiwork of private sector tech experts, the site was running smoothly. Eventually, more than 8 million people successfully signed up for insurance on the site.

HealthCare.gov may be the highest-profile example of what can go wrong without a system integrator. But it’s far from the first time an agency has faced the choice of whether and how to implement an integrator position in complicated procurement.  

A 2007 Government Accountability Office report on the Army’s Future Combat Systems noted the criticality of a lead systems integrator to manage that program.

“The Army realized that its compartmentalized workforce did not lend itself to the kind of crosscutting work that the FCS program would demand,” auditors wrote in that report.

CMS has clearly learned its lesson.

HHS Chief Financial Officer Ellen G. Murray said the agency agrees that failing to clearly assign a lead systems integrator for the project was an important learning experience.

Going forward, determining whether to assign a lead integrator will be a “best practice when planning for a complex IT project,” she wrote in response to the IG report.

(Image via txking/Shutterstock.com)

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