The narrative surrounding the current Healthcare.gov website debacle has many familiar threads. For those who aren’t following closely, there are:
Anyone who has been around Federal IT and Federal contracting has seen this before. We understand the managers who don’t trust their IT people, often because they don’t understand what’s being said—but also because IT people can be kind of sparse with information if they don’t like the people they work for. We also understand IT people who give out plenty of warning, ask questions, and are frustrated when they get confusing or changing requirements—then still have to meet over-optimistic expectations.
When you say the contractor “didn’t meet expectations,” what does that really mean? Expectations can be realistic, based on experience and accurate forecasting. But they can also be wildly unrealistic. Furthermore, realistic expectations can become impossible if requirements are added or the situation changes.
When things work it’s because there is someone in the middle who can speak technology well enough to communicate with the tech people, but who understands the concerns and pressures facing the managers. This person gets the right information from the tech people and translates it into realistic cautions and expectations.
Sometimes the problem is that person is missing. A lot of projects need these people, and there really aren’t enough to go around. But often the person is there, explaining patiently, but he or she gets ignored. Other voices promise more, or appeal more to people’s fears—and get heard as a result.
I don’t know what happened behind closed doors, but my guess is that the failure is the lack of that voice in the middle.
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