HealthCare.gov diagnosis: Project governance severely lacking?

Karen Goulart, Senior Features Writer

Does the Affordable Care Act cover vision? Because with all the finger pointing going on in Washington this week over the federal health site, someone is bound to lose an eye. If ever there were a "teachable moment" about the value of project governance, it's playing out on the biggest possible stage as we speak. The thing is, none of the players seem to be acknowledging its existence.

Karen GoulartKaren Goulart

On Thursday, the lead contractors were trotted out for Congressional admonishments. Congress pointed at them, they pointed at the administration, the administration pointed back. But as MIT Sloan School of Management's Center for Digital Business research fellow Michael Schrage laid out in this week's lead Searchlight item, everyone was pointing in the wrong direction. The real problem here wasn't shoddy coding or a poorly designed user interface (not to say it isn't there); it was the lack of project governance.

Of the many contractors working on the project, none was explicitly responsible for – or, it's been reported, even had the capability to conduct -- end-to-end testing. They were asked to implement functionality they knew wouldn't work properly and couldn't possibly be in good working order by the Oct. 1 deadline, but no one stopped them. No one suggested it might be wise to take a step back. No one owned the project.

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Are they for real? As Schrage wrote, "Successful IT systems demand serious IT governance. Where was it?"

If this sort of thing happened in a corporate setting, the CIO would be raked over the coals, then pitched into the fire for good measure. For a project of this magnitude -- financially, politically and heck, even historically speaking -- the absence of governance is mind-boggling. But then that does seem to be the zeitgeist in Washington.

It's often said of large IT projects that the technology isn't the problem -- it's the people. That change management is hard. But in this case, it's not the people using the new technology; it's the people responsible for the technology. In Schrage's words: "These are issues of character and culture, not technology and money."

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Let us know what you think about the story; email Karen Goulart, senior features writer.

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