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Best Negative Example: Launch of Healthcare.gov

Robert McIsaac
Insurance Experts' Forum, December 11, 2013

 

The theme of the December issue is Best of the Year and, unequivocally, this year's best example of a cautionary tale for insurance company CIOs was the highest profile IT failure in decades: the launch of Healthcare.gov.

Whatever the eventual fate of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare, may be, the story of the failed initial launch of Healthcare.gov should never be forgotten by insurer CIOs.

And, whatever you may think of the president's politics, there is at least one area where he and his team clearly didn't look far enough to the Left: in their software development life cycle. The inclusion of testing resources and quality planning early in the process, on the far left side of the SDLC, could have made all the difference.

The launch of Healthcare.gov was an undeniably large-scale undertaking. It was highly complex, both in terms of the technical challenge and the organizational structure put in place to support it. While some glitches and challenges are to be expected with any large scale implementation, the news that emerged shortly after the launch was rather stunning for both the simplicity of the problem and the overriding sense that this could have been avoided.

The gist of the news was that the testing effort was underestimated, that the importance of testing was apparently not recognized by the effort's management team. And, when testing did show problems with the capabilities, a decision was made to proceed with deployment anyway. This final decision appears to have been a brain-cramp of epic proportions since it put the problems related to the implementation into a blindingly bright public light. Yes, in fact, the whole world was watching and the option of using a phone or paper-based process as an alternative is both frustrating and disconcerting. When the fog of government shutdown had lifted, all eyes turned squarely on what may go down as one of the more egregiously managed technical implementations in recent times.

The old IT adage remains intact: Organizations never seem to have enough time to do things right the first time. But they always make time to fix them after they leave a smoking crater. The corollary to this also remains in place: Testing is the first thing to get pushed when schedules grow tight; and its lack is the first thing blamed when the handwringing starts.

While disappointing, these results aren't a complete surprise, but is the lack of testing the real cause of this failure?

While focusing here may make good headlines, the real problem runs far deeper and is more systemic to the development process. Our experience has shown repeatedly that the issue is not the lack of testing; it's finding ways to build a quality assurance mindset into the software development life cycle. This is true for carriers doing internal development, vendors building their own product solutions and, of course, for governments engaged in large publicly funded efforts. Looking to the left can cut the cost of error remediation by as much as 90 percent, based on recent Novarica research.

Transparency, code reviews and a more agile development methodology also can pay big dividends for delivery efforts. As the public explanations were revealed, it appeared that some basic principles of good development work were ignored as well. In reality, this too is part of what should be a well-orchestrated "Look to the Left" mantra.

In this implementation, we see state-developed properties in places like Kentucky and California working "as designed." While the problem they were tasked to solve was more contained than the Federal effort, the message remains the same. It appears that some state teams heeded lessons ignored elsewhere.

What played out on newspaper front pages and 24×7 on cable news is also a reminder for insurance CIOs and their teams. The value of "looking to the left" can have significant implications for the delivery of big efforts. Technology teams and business partners evangelizing this within carriers can substantially help improve results at a far lower price point and with less drama. That's a true win-win for all IT organizations. INNsight is exclusive commentary from Novarica.

Editor's Note: This column first appeared in our December "INN Focus Report: Best of the Year," at insurancenetworking.com.

INNSight is exclusive commentary from Novarica.

Rob McIsaac is a principal focusing on life insurance, annuities and wealth management at Novarica, a research and advisory firm focused on business and technology strategy for insurers.

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