Two months after the disastrous launch of Healthcare.gov, the site has improved to the point where it is running but there is still lots to do. Such a shame that this had to happen to such a key initiative, and it was in such stark contrast to the adept use of technology that we witnessed in the Obama campaign under Harper Reed.
One of the best takes on it came from Clay Shirky who, in typically erudite form, talked about the gulf between planning and reality. His point was about how cultures that make it difficult to pass bad news back up the line, that fail to adopt test and learn approaches with technology, that stick to rigid waterfall processes and thinking, build up huge risk:
"An effective test is an exercise in humility; it’s only useful in a culture where desirability is not confused with likelihood. For a test to change things, everyone has to understand that their opinion, and their boss’s opinion, matters less than what actually works and what doesn’t".
The result was a bloated site that reportedly had 500 million lines of code. It's worth checking out the remarkable visualisation that David McCandless put together comparing that to the codebases for things like the Space Shuttle, the Large Hadron Collider, entire operating systems, and even the total DNA basepairs in a Mouse genome (apparently over three times smaller).
Rather than avoiding failure, says Shirky, the lack of early and aggresive testing simply stored it up. Rather than taking smaller, acceptable risks in public early on, they accumulated risk. It was not simply a procurement problem, it was a management and a cultural problem:
"The vision of “technology” as something you can buy according to a plan, then have delivered as if it were coming off a truck, flatters and relieves managers who have no idea and no interest in how this stuff works, but it’s also a breeding ground for disaster."
There was an interesting counterpoint to this in the form of the guiding principles that have just been published by the Government Digital Service in the UK, for a technology transformation programme they are running to showcase a different way of delivering technology to the civil service. Apart from the laudable degree of transparency that is exhibited here, the principles speak of the fundamental need not for rigid, detailed, up-front planning processes, but of flexibility. Worth repeating them in full:
we will start with user needs: until we understand what users across the Cabinet Office want and need, we won’t start buying things
we will design with choice and flexibility in mind: there will be many and different needs across the department so we will offer technology solutions that fit individuals and teams
we will be transparent throughout: we will be open about decisions and actions so our users and stakeholders understand why we’re taking a certain approach
we will architect loosely coupled services: we are not building a “system”; we are delivering a set of devices and services that can be independently replaced. A key success measure for the programme is that we should never have to do it again
we will favour short contracts: technology changes rapidly and we believe the age of the long-term contract is over. We need to be able to swap services in and out as the need arises
we will bring the best of consumer technology to the enterprise: modern devices and cloud applications are built to be intuitive and flexible with minimal need for training. We believe business technology should be the same
we will make security as invisible as possible: we are working with CESG and GSS to ensure all services are secure to new Official level. However, appropriate levels of security shouldn’t get in the way of the user experience of the services
we will build a long-term capability: technology delivery doesn’t end with the programme. We will not be handing the services over to a single outsource vendor in 2015, but instead will be bringing digital skills back into the department
Amen to that.