By Alan Bean
“I’m going to try and download every movie ever made, and you’re going to try to sign up for Obamacare, and we’ll see which happens first.”
This faux challenge from Jon Stewart to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius gets to the essence of public bafflement over the disastrous launch of the Affordable Care website. We have traveled so far down the digital highway, people think, that there’s almost nothing computer technology can’t do . . . like downloading thousands of movies on demand. So, why can’t a simple government website allow people to sign up for medical insurance? How hard can that be?
Here’s our deep suspicion: the Obamacare website failed because everything the federal government touches turns to garbage. While the IT wizards in private industry remake the world, this clanky old government website can’t accomplish simple tasks. Wouldn’t you know it?
But this simplistic analysis is wrongheaded.
The government’s website is an amalgamation of dozens of private companies contributing individual pieces to the larger puzzle. Prior to launch, IT company reps told their congressional inquisitors, our little puzzle piece worked just fine. But when they put the puzzle together nothing worked. The picture on the puzzle box showed a puppy rolling in a green meadow; but the completed puzzle looked like giant robots battling it out in a dystopian moonscape. Our firm can’t be held responsible for a system failure.
This happens all the time. When you download a movie, you are using relatively simple software designed to perform a simple task. Impressive, to be sure; but straightforward. When you create a computer program designed to link dozens of discrete systems into a working whole, things can quickly go south.
The difficulty of integrating a series of very different computer systems came home to me when I was researching the unjust treatment of the IRP-6, a group of IT pioneers from Colorado Springs working to create software for the federal government. The scene is post-9-11 America. Washington officialdom has realized that the attack on the twin towers exploited the fact that American law enforcement agencies lacked the technology to coordinate diverse databases and intelligence systems. Dozens of huge household-name IT companies had been working to fix the problem without success.
IRP, a small, underfunded operation in Colorado, believed it could contribute the puzzle pieces that would make the giant robots look more like a puppy. Some federal officials were interested until the FBI decided to treat the IRP professionals as common criminals and throw them in prison for over a decade. You can read the whole tragic story here.
When I listen to the talking heads lament the egregious failures of the Obamacare rollout, I am reminded of the decade-long failure of the intelligence community to integrate intelligence systems that didn’t speak the same language. It wasn’t just that the FBI couldn’t share intel with the NSA; even the various departments within the FBI functioned as communication silos.
Here is the section of my IRP-6 story that discusses the problem as it relates to the FBI. (more…)