Why the Obamacare website was doomed

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This morning’s Observer column.

So why was the Obamacare site launch such a disaster? Writing in the New York Times, two politically experienced geeks argue that it’s mostly down to the way the government purchases IT services. “Much of the problem,” they write, “has to do with the way the government buys things. The government has to follow a code called the Federal Acquisition Regulation, which is more than 1,800 pages of legalese that all but ensure that the companies that win government contracts, like the ones put out to build HealthCare.gov, are those that can navigate the regulations best, but not necessarily do the best job.”

That strikes a chord over here. British civil servants have traditionally been technologically illiterate, so when ministers demand a new IT system to fix some failing that is annoying the Daily Mail, Sir Humphrey breaks into a cold sweat. He knows nothing about this stuff, except that it costs a bomb and that it usually bombs. The spectre of the National Audit Office looms over him. He does not want another IT disaster attached to his personnel file. So what does he do?

Simple: he calls up the big consultancy firms asking for tenders. These in turn call up their chums in brain-dead firms called “system integrators” who know only how to do one thing, namely to build massive integrated IT systems the way they were built in the 1960s. And thus begins another death march to oblivion; another project that is billions over budget and years behind schedule.

LATER: Seb Schmoller pointed me to this excellent Washington Post piece which explains, in detail, why the poisonous politics surrounding Obamacare made it impossible to mount a rationally-planned and executed website project.