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The following entry is a record in the “Catalogue of Catastrophe” – a list of failed or troubled projects from around the word.

Synopsis :
When the President of the United States has to address the issue in front of the whole nation, you know you’ve created a serious mess. The Affordable Care act of 2010 is President Obama’s signature legislative accomplishment. Aimed at brining affordable health care to millions of people who otherwise would go unprotected, the law creates a healthcare marketplace in which individual citizens can purchase the healthcare insurance they want. At the heart of the program is the website.

The home page

The site connects the buying public with the private insurance companies offering policies through the program. More than just an e-commerce site selling insurance, the system includes a complex set of rules aimed at determining if a consumer is eligible for government subsidized coverage. To enforce the rules the system requires a complex set of interfaces to other government systems across a wide range of different government departments.

Launched on Oct 1st 2013 (amidst the 2013 US government shutdown), reports of problems with the website started to surface on its very first day. Overwhelmed with interested consumers the system suffered from slow responses, access denied errors and other mysterious glitches that prevented some users from completing their transactions.

Error message greating users (note the typo – a fitting touch) – click for larger image

While teething problems are common in new systems, the highly political nature of the project and the fact that it has played out on the national stage has earned this one its place in the catalogue of catastrophe. Three weeks after its launch the problems are persisting forcing the President to address the growing backlash before it undermines the very premise of the new system. Promising a “tech-surge” in which the “best and the brightest” will be drafted in to fix the problems, the President had to admit that the performance of the system was below what would be expected.

Based on initial reports it seems that the joins the list of projects that underestimated the volume of transactions they would be facing (see “Failure to address performance requirements” for further examples). Compounding the problem reports of quality defects in the software have added a further layer of frustration in front of those trying to utilize the new system. The problem is of course now fixing a system when the glare of the media is focused upon you. Because the work has been done by a number of separate contractors, because of the legacy nature of some of the backend systems with which the system integrates and because of the need to secure private data, fixing the problems could still be long road ahead.

As with many such rollouts, the chances are that it will reach maturity and stability. In the meantime it is an embarrassing example of how technology enabled projects can still catch the unwary out.

Contributing factors as reported in the press:
Under-sizing of infrastructure due to failure to correctly forecast performance and throughput requirements. Schedule pressure resulting in lack of time for appropriate testing. Silo’s between contractors and departments participating in the project resulting in communications issues. Underestimation of complexity (overly aggressive timeline in the face of very high complexity).

Related story :
See also MNsure – The Minnesota health insurance marketplace.

Reference links :

President Obama acknowledges healthcare website faults
Obamacare Website Programmers Complained About Unrealistic Deadlines
Contractors See Weeks of Work on Health Site
Contractors describe scant pre-launch testing of U.S. healthcare site
Why a ‘tech surge’ isn’t going to save
CGI Group Said to Lose Main Obamacare Contract to Accenture – Added 10 Jan 2014
Accenture Wins U.S. Contract for Obamacare Enrollment Website – Added 14 Jan 2014

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