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Healthcare.gov

It was dramatically deemed “one of the greatest website disasters in history” by Senator Tim Scott (R-SC). Launched officially on the first day of October during the very first day of a government shutdown, Healthcare.gov was designed as the education and registration hub for a large portion of Americans to easily compare and enroll in health insurance plans. But instead of a smooth deployment, technical glitches and security issues wreaked havoc on the system leading to miniscule enrollment rates, incredibly long wait times, a loss of user-submitted information, and other major functionality problems.

Political opinions aside, there is no denying that Healthcare.gov’s first few weeks were a telling tale of project mismanagement, failed expectations, and a hurried rush to patch major site issues. What may look like a relatively simple site though is actually an enormous endeavor fueled by public and private sector agencies. The major challenge lied in its mission to connect information from old, unresponsive federal government databases (such as the IRS) to state databases to dozens of private insurers. Similar sites of such scale and strength have had years to slowly develop and work out minor and major kinks, but Healthcare.gov had the challenge of millions of users expecting a fully functional and fleshed out site on day one.

Looking at the events of the past few weeks, we uncovered some general technology management takeaways from the Healthcare.gov fiasco. 

Hope for the best – prepare for the worst:
Overly ambitious public custom web and software launches have had a murky history. With such a highly publicized launch, Healthcare.gov should have been prepared for a flood of users. Slow loading times could be augmented through a proper estimate of user traffic and boosted server bandwidth to account for incredibly high page viewership and interaction.

Deadlines for deadlines’ sake:
Pushing a project out just to meet a deadline isn’t worth undermining basic functionality. What’s the point of a site that doesn’t work? While missing a deadline is never a good thing, it’s simply better to wait for a properly tested and usable site that will not cause major problems.

Keep communication open:
In the face of severe public scrutiny, the team at Healthcare.gov had to accept their missteps and actively document their efforts to improve the site. They’ve dedicated an entire section of their blog to detailing the progress of updates and have been continually tracking website improvements. In doing so they keep the public informed and keep themselves accountable for improvements.

Having a backup for your backup:
The government enlisted the help of some tech bigwigs (Oracle, Google, RedHat, etc.) to assist in fixing the technical issues plaguing Healthcare.gov, but only after several weeks of persistent bugs. Instead, a full contingency plan should have been set in place to quickly provide an immediate solution that would kick into action immediately as the problems were assessed.

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