The mainstream media is still reporting the Affordable Health Care (ACA) Exchange Website is not working well – when it works at all. Well, they’ve got it wrong. It’s not the website that isn’t working. It’s the very complicated software environment behind the website that’s dysfunctional. The website does not work because a significant portion of that software environment is not yet built or even designed – end to end.
ACA’s Bright Shiny Paint Job
A website is like the shiny bright paint job on a new car on the showroom floor. The paint attracts the buyer’s attention but it doesn’t drive the car.
What propels the shiny paint job down the road is a chassis, to which a body style can be attached, and a motor. The ACA chassis is the software architecture that is supposed to link the user, the government and insurance company systems together – the same way the chassis connects the axles and steering wheel to the driver.
When Ford or GM or BMW or Tesla, for example, build a new car they start with the chassis. Many body styles (and paint colors) can be built on a single chassis. The weight of the chassis and the associated body style determine the size engine that is needed to make the vehicle efficient and easy to drive.
In software the chassis is the systems or environmental architecture. The architecture is the super-superstructure to which each of the individual software modules are attached – for example, prove the identity of the applicant. The architecture also establishes the relationship between individual modules. For example, after establishing identity, the next module determines eligibility for subsidies and/or Medicaid. The software modules are grouped together to meet specific user needs – analogous to the auto body style. The modular relationships determine the type (and complexity) of software needed to make the whole thing work – the engine.
Oops, Engine Not Bolted To Chassis
The ACA Exchange website crashed on launch not because the shiny green user portal didn’t work but because the engine – the software – hadn’t been bolted securely to the chassis and fell off as soon as users “stepped on the gas”. In fact, we now know that the chassis has not yet been fully designed and consequently there really are no engine bolts.
For the past week, daily “cover their own backside” (“CYA”) leaks from both administration and Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) officials have brought to light a troubling picture of political expediency, bureaucratic bungling and executive irresponsibility. The self-serving leaks have unveiled the truth.
At least 40 percent of the system has not yet been designed. OMG, beyond the shiny green paint – there isn’t even a complete design of the car – yet and White House officials knew it. The chassis is nothing more than a partial Plaster of Paris model –certainly not sturdy enough for any road test.
In the automobile design process there actually is a Plaster of Paris model of a proposed car. It is used by car manufacturers to secure bids from tool and die makers and other suppliers so that they can determine, at various points in the design process, the costs and challenges associated with the planned vehicle. It’s no different in the procurement of software (purchased systems) or software development.
If the Plaster of Paris model is incomplete, the tool and die maker can only tell the car manufacturer the hourly cost of labor and the cost of a ton of steel, not the wholesale cost of the car tooling. Similarly, in software development if the first task for the vendor will be to define the system, their bid must be limited to an hourly billing rate plus a specific percentage of that rate to cover miscellaneous development expenses.
Until the system has actually been defined, there can be no plan to develop it. No plan means no budget and no budget means no controls. That’s a software contract every vendor dreams of and is every client’s worst and unending nightmare.
ACA is a Shiny Green Edsel
An estimated $600 million dollars has been spent on the ACA Exchange to date. There’s still no end to end system designed or built. Absent strong executive guidance, detailed plan-to-complete and seasoned management, the ACA Exchange is a shiny green Edsel destined for the junk yard of failed government information technology projects. Except this time, it could take a significant part of the US economy along for the ride!!
As tax payers, we must insist that Congress freeze spending on the ACA Exchange, including so-called “fixes” at least until an end-to-end design is complete, new management and oversight team has been put in place, capable external contractors hired and zero-cost-overrun development and rollout milestones established. If you agree – call, write or forward this blog to your representative along with your own comments.
Photo Credit: Joe Raedle/Getty Images
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