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Fmr. innovation expert: HealthCare.gov created by “sloppy” contractors

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Healthcare.gov (original design)

WASHINGTON (CNN) — A former member of President Barack Obama’s technology team says the website where Americans are supposed to be able to enroll in health care exchanges was created by a “sloppy” team of contractors who were selected through a flawed federal procurement process.

Clay Johnson, who served as a Presidential Innovation Fellow beginning in August 2012, wrote in a blog post on October 7 that signs of flaws on Healthcare.gov were apparent from the day it went online, including the use of placeholder text in the site’s code.

“The contractors who made this website were at best sloppy, and at worst unqualified for the job,” Johnson wrote.

In an interview with CNN, Johnson said the federal government is increasingly relying on a shrinking list of preferred contractors for its IT work in a process that is producing lackluster outcomes.

“There’s been a consolidation of incumbent vendors and they’ve gotten lazy as a result,” Johnson told CNN. “They haven’t kept up with the market.”

The result, Johnson says, is a “new digital divide between the public and private sector.”

Selected as part of the first class of White House innovation fellows in August 2012, Johnson worked on a project that developed an online marketplace connecting the government with small tech firms. The fellowships last for six months. Previously Johnson co-founded the tech company that built Obama’s 2008 campaign website.

Writing in the post titled “The HealthCare.gov Fiasco,” Johnson said the problem originated in the way the federal government selects companies for technology projects — a process he says favors a select number of firms to the exclusion of better-qualified outlets.

“Healthcare.gov got this way not because of incompetence or sloppiness of an individual vendor, but because of a deeply engrained and malignant cancer that’s eating away at the federal government’s ability to provide effective online services,” he wrote.

“It’s a cancer that’s shut out the best and brightest minds from working on these problems, diminished competition for federal work, and landed us here — where you have half-billion dollar websites that don’t work,” he wrote, linking to USASpending.gov

Obama on Monday vowed changes were coming to HealthCare.gov that would make the site easier to use for Americans looking to sign up for the exchanges, which are a key element of the President’s landmark Affordable Care Act. Later this week, three of the contractors responsible for the website – CGI, Serco, and Equifax — will testify before a congressional committee about problems on the site.

In a statement, CGI said it and other contractors “are working around the clock for the improvement of HealthCare.gov, a system that is complex, ambitious and unprecedented. We remain confident in our ability to deliver continuous improvement in system performance and a more positive user experience.”

A separate posting on Johnson’s blog from Monday offered a few ways the site could be fixed, including the recommendation the administration hold the contractors responsible for the poorly-concocted website responsible.

“The problem here isn’t just the result of bad programming,” he wrote. “It’s the result of bad systems and bad architecture from the get-go. When you try and build the world’s biggest shopping mall and the only place you can buy your support beams from is a balsa-wood mill, your building is going to collapse.”

Opening the website to outside experts will help fix some of the problems, he wrote, but expecting substantial changes in a short amount of time could be unreasonable.

“The best thing that any outside experts can do in any reasonable amount of time is replace some drywall and paint. Otherwise, your experts are going to have to figure out where the balsa-wood is falling apart, and replace it with iron. That takes time.”

Johnson said the experts scrambling to repair the technical problems with HealthCare.gov should break it up into smaller parts, bring in a new set of vendors that are “a lot more nimble.”

President Obama’s signature legislative achievement deserves better, Johnson said. “This is not up to par,” he added.

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