Memo to President Obama: Is More Than Just a Website

The botched insurance exchange site shines a bright light on the government's problems with buying technology.

In explaining the administration’s implementation of the Affordable Care Act, President Obama sought to put the botched website in some perspective: “We did not wage this long contentious battle just around a website,” he noted. “That’s not what this was about.”

Maybe so, but isn’t just a website. It’s the public face of this administration’s signature legislative achievement. If this is how they execute their top priorities, what's going on with lesser programs? That only 0.04 percent of visitors to the website during week one were likely able to sign up for insurance says more about the complexity of large federal technology projects (and the hubris of officials intent on rolling out the website before it was ready) than it does about the merits of the Affordable Care Act.

IT debacles are nothing new for the federal government. Agencies routinely overspend on technologies that under perform. And politicians and senior executives routinely underestimate what it takes to effectively implement big, complex, ambitious programs. What's different about is how much attention those failings have received.  

"This [website] is something that has to talk to a lot of different federal systems -- legacy databases," former White House innovation fellow and entrepreneur Clay Johnson told Bloomberg TV. The "lack of technical leadership at HHS" and a broken procurement system contributed to the website's failures, he said.

Johnson is hardly the administration's harshest critic. As co-founder of Blue State Digital, the firm that built and managed President Obama’s highly-touted online campaign in 2008, he as much as anyone raised the public's expectations for this tech-savvy administration. And that's why his views matter. 

Johnson is just one of dozens of outstanding tech leaders in and out of government who will be joining us at Nextgov Prime in Washington Nov. 20-21 to talk about the biggest challenges and opportunities facing federal IT leaders. Among other things, we'll explore the dysfunctional acquisition system that has for years stymied feds and contractors alike, and created a raw deal for the public.

Registration for federal employees is free.