Avoiding another HealthCare.gov

Speaking at a congressional hearing today, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius called out private sector contractors for the many technology failings of the insurance marketplace.

“Unfortunately, a subset of those contracts for HealthCare.gov have not met expectations. Among other issues, the initial wave of interest stressed the account service, resulting in many consumers experiencing difficulty signing up, while those who were able to sign up sometimes had problems logging in.”

As more of our government functions are moved online in the coming years, it’s important to ask ourselves whether existing government service providers have the necessary skills and expertise to successfully build these complex and interconnected systems. While some providers are well-equipped to handle certain types of projects, the numerous shortcomings of the HealthCare.gov rollout suggest a host of issues, including a lack of experience in building consumer-facing applications and in scaling these applications to serve millions of concurrent users.

Intridea doesn’t generally pursue government contracts. Being headquartered in DC, it would seem like a natural fit for us, and though we’ve considered that direction many times, the overhead involved in the procurement process is just too burdensome.

We’re a company of designers and engineers who are passionate about making inspired products for our clients; we’re not bureaucrats. We focus on clients that push limits: from startups who think differently about the world, to enterprises who are heavyweights in their industries. Our project cycles are short, our team is agile, and our approach is remarkably different from what’s expected of government service providers.

While we don’t pursue government contracts, we have exactly the right experience that’s necessary to solve the hardest problems in technology these days. Through years of experience building consumer-facing startups and sophisticated enterprise integrations, we’ve learned how to turn the seemingly complicated into beautifully simple solutions. And we’ve learned how to do this at a massive scale and for a fraction of the cost that the government pays.

We’ve built platforms like Scalr.com which are meant to scale large infrastructures and applications to meet the demand millions of concurrent users. Our leadership includes individuals like Ezra Zygmuntowicz who built Engine Yard, a PaaS (Platform as a Service), to host and deliver applications to millions of users. These are not skills that government service providers have readily available.

Government apps are changing from backend systems used only by a fixed number of government agencies to web-based systems that hundreds of millions of citizens need to access and interact with. The developers on the forefront of building these solutions in the consumer world are not rushing to work on government projects. So what is the solution?

Some have suggested overhauling the current procurement system so other firms with the necessary skills are able to compete. Replacing this system with one that delivers value and efficiency should absolutely be the long-term solution. It’s not a stretch, however, to say it’s incredibly unlikely to happen any time soon given the current political climate and what would surely be an insurmountable lobbying effort on behalf of incumbent government service providers who find the current system quite lucrative.

What may be a more realistic short-term solution is for existing government service providers to partner with and hire firms like Intridea. Bringing in experts with proven consumer and enterprise experience allows providers to tackle the hardest technology issues and acquire the necessary expertise to deliver quality solutions. While firms like ours don’t generally pursue government contracts, we do get hired by forward-thinking government service providers to help. We fill the gaps in their experience and do so with incredible effectiveness.

There seems to be plenty of blame to go around for the failure of the HealthCare.gov rollout. Lost time, money, and political capital are all things that could be more effectively managed by bringing in smaller, more-agile firms better equipped to handle these solutions. HealthCare.gov is hardly the first delivery failure and until the system changes to deal with the root cause of these failures, government service providers would do themselves and our government a service by looking to more-agile and innovative firms to fill the gaps in their own skillsets.