I Could Build One Hell of a Website for $350 Million in 9 Months

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First off, let me tell you that my company, Advice Interactive Group, builds websites. So, when I see a site like the technology portion of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) – the government’s very own healthcare.gov – fail after spending $300 million plus of taxpayers’ dollars, I have to question why.

I Am Frustrated

I tried to set up a small business account the other day just to see what all the banter is about and was immediately frustrated. Although the site has been over-hauled and coded by the “brightest” minds in the industry, it still outright rejects user logins, and refuses to display menu and other options for those who do manage to get inside. So, as far as I am concerned, the promise of cheap and competitive health insurance still remains out of reach for the average tax-paying American like me. According to a report from The Washington Post, the site has been able to fulfill its function for only a mere fraction of the population. I am guessing that there are many other frustrated uninsured Americans out there like me.

I’m Not Happy

This is absolutely infuriating, particularly considering that taxpayers have spent so much money for this technological fiasco. So what is wrong with it you ask? Well, the excuse provided by the administration is that there are inadequacies in the code. As an internet marketing company I can tell you that a client would not be very happy with me if shortly after I delivered his site I told him, “Hey Mr. Client, your site is done, but we are not sure the code behind the site will work. People may not be able to sign up, but don’t worry we can call them and fill out paper applications. No big deal!” WHAT? Are you kidding me?

Maybe I am Not Charging Enough

As with most government spending and budget allocations, the exact figures are difficult to calculate. But based on research with the figures that are released, the best estimates can be derived from the U.S. Government Accountability Office’s (GAO) report in June. The figures shown indicate that U.S. Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) have spent “almost $394 million from fiscal year 2010 through March 2013 through contracts” to build the “federally facilitated exchanges” (FFEs).

Please note that those figures do not include other administrative expenses like CMS salaries, which means the actual cost is much higher. According to the 2012 CMS budget, the agency spent $150 million last year for the Affordable Care Act. Hence, we can safely come to a calculated cost of around $500 million. For a website that does not work. As a business owner, this just makes me think. Maybe I am not charging enough for web design and development…

Let’s Take a Look…

Although it seems unfair to compare this Government project with privately owned online businesses, let’s do it anyway for the sake of perspective. Facebook ran for six years before its funding crossed the $500 million mark. Twitter, started in 2006, ran quite splendidly until 2011 for just $360 million while LinkedIn and Spotify have never crossed $300 million. Since its inception, healthcare.gov has been spending taxpayers’ money without offering any such benefits. How is this possible?

In an age when online businesses have conquered the international marketplace it’s almost impossible to believe we can’t get a simple website up and running that only serves our country. So, who do we blame? The breakdown of healthcare.org lies in the hands of administration appointees who award these contracts to companies.

The more experienced the companies, the less the appointee’s liability. It seems logical. However, now the government is willing to pay the same companies even more money to fix problems that they created in the first place! 

Crowdsourcing May Not Be the Answer

There are at least 55 major contractors involved in the healthcare.gov project. They run the whole gamut of online aspects from design, creation, to administration. Regarding the recent disaster, all they had to say was, “Not our fault,” or “No comment.” This is one of the major drawbacks of crowd sourcing – there is no single entity to take the blame. Where the heck is their project manager? Who the heck did the testing before the site went live? Fire them!

Hey Obamacare, Time to Give Me a Call

An estimated 14.6 million people have visited healthcare.gov, which indicates there is high interest for the program. We know that the government is not particularly competitive. But after spending $500 million, all we are asking for is a working website. Maybe they should call us at Advice Interactive Group?

Bernadette Coleman
Bernadette Coleman is the CEO of Advice Local, an award winning technology and Inc 500 digital agency. Bernadette is passionate about all things digital including... Read Full Bio
Bernadette Coleman
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  • Scott McKirahan

    Amen! I’ve managed to log in a few times and it’s little more than a membership site with links (most probably, affiliate links if they are smart – major assumption!). There is absolutely nothing about the website that is much more complicated than a WordPress blog.

    Anyone who has ever dealt with programmers can tell you that every single one does things differently and they all think the other guy’s code is crap. It’s a lot like federal income tax – hand your annual income tax preparation over to five different accountants and you’ll get five completely different tax returns from them.

    Subcontracting this to 55 different entities was clearly a disaster waiting to happen. Of course, I’m sure the number of groups involved in the project comes down to promises, paybacks and politics. You can’t do things the right way when there are so many people waiting for a piece of the pie they were promised when they contributed to your campaign.

    This is the way things are done in Washington and why our taxes are so high. If the government was run like a business, it would be a fraction of the size that it is, they’d spend far less money and we’d all have significantly more money in our pockets to spur the economy.

    Come on Washington; farm this out to a single company like you should have done from the beginning. I’m sure there are thousands of places that would be more than happy to do build you a glorified WordPress site for a couple million!

  • Jeremy Rivera

    “FIRE THEM.”

    I think THIS is the most enraging part of this. Who has been fired? No-one! Absolutely ZERO accountability. Why? Politics. Sebelious’s replacement would be held up in confirmation, so Obama refused to give her the axe. But this is just a symptom of government contracting. The whole process is designed to insulate everyone from responsibility.

  • Michael George

    To be honest, I have to prioritize when it comes to government idiocy. There is just so much of it. This cost $500 million? I read 70 million, but okay… $500 million trying to create something good to get millions of uninsured children healthcare.

    Then, for no reason whatsoever, the House Republicans spent 48 times this amount (24 billion) to shut the government down over a law that was already passed and deemed constitutional by the Supreme Court.

    While $500 million is definitely “not good”– at least it was done in good faith. The Republicans spent 48 times that amount on what can only be called “bad faith.”

    In addition, I can’t help but think the website would have went smoother if Republicans didn’t try to obstruct it so many times. Let’s see… How many times did they vote on a bill that was already law? How many millions did they waste obstructing this?

    Again: $500 million spent trying to help people VS 24 BILLION trying to destroy our government.

    Ah heck. We are in the end times anyway. Why would Republicans want to help the government, when God is going to destroy earth with dragons and sea monsters anyway?

  • Mike Knight

    The site wasn’t meant to work. Obama didn’t want people to see how much their insurance costs would skyrocket. Of course that hasn’t stopped people from sharing their horror stories of being dropped from their plans, or seeing their rates go up to an insane level. It’s a destructive tyrannical government that will some day over regulate the internet to the point of making it only profitable for the big corporations. The same strategy that’s being used to taking down all small business so the elite members of the corporatist government can destroy their competition.

  • Travis Bailey

    The figure is closer to 175 million USD. Even at that figure, it was terribly botched. Anything beyond that number, however, is sensationalism.

  • cr0ft

    Yeah, it’s real easy to talk big, but since you now tout your ability to program a better healthcare.gov than healthcare.gov, I want to know what giant projects that are aimed to serve the needs of 300 million people the writer of this advertising piece for their company has actually created.

    There’s no doubt that there has been some incompetence involved in this project, but compared to starting with an obscure site that has no followers (Facebook and Twitter both in the early days) and then growing out from there, creating a site that has to be huge with multiple interconnected systems in corporations and other states is extremely difficult. Creating a backend that can handle thousands of connections to the same database on the same second is not easy, either.

    I’m so damned tired of reading these public screeds where some nobody makes it sound like creating a large, multiple-interconnected data system with a web front end to serve 300 million people is the equivalent of going on blogger.com and creating an account.

  • Edward Kwong

    Product of government incompetency if you ask me. Since when has the government ever done anything efficiently and cost effective? Need a passport? Give them 4-6 weeks to print a booklet with your picture on it. Need IRS forms? 8-10 weeks to for processing. Seriously, nothing takes that long. Government employees can learn a lot from the private sector. Productivity being the main one. How a simple website costs anywhere more than 7 figures is beyond me. Give Google 10% of that and they’ll give you Skynet for crying out loud.

  • rckymtnprogrammer

    Actually, Facebook serves over 1B people each month – so yes, there is an expectation that $200M should be able to build a web interface that serves let’s say 100M visits (because the entire population of the US is NOT logging into Healthcare.gov). Yes, it’s a complicated process – but it’s not impossible – and what the government has presented is silliness at its core. If they had been smart they would have chunked out the whole project and had at least gotten the Customer Experience right – even if it was a clunky mess on the back-end. Then people would have said “Oh, I don’t know, I was able to sign up” (even if in reality there are 10,000 interns running around with printed papers, calling insurance companies to get the user signed up manually behind the scenes.)

    It’s all about perception – and outside of the credibility issue that has been growing long before the healthcare website debacle, there is now a competency gap as well – one that could have at least been tempered had there been a business person at the helm – or someone with real-world business experience that knew they had to “please the customer or they will go elsewhere and complain like crazy on their way out”.

    Just another example of bureaucrats having no idea how to run a business… I don’t care what political party they belong to.

  • Lauren

    It’s not just that 55 contractors worked on the project, but “making sure that the separately designed databases and pieces of software from 55 contractors work together.” 55 databases/apps had to be synced. I can tell you right now – I work at a large university and we struggle to get records to sync between 6 databases, securely. Linking up 55 pieces would be a mammoth operation and I agree – would require a fantastic project management setup. The public facing side of the project might “look” like wordpress but in the backend we are talking about sensitive data, security needs, and a lot of damn field mapping. Quote: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/21/us/insurance-site-seen-needing-weeks-to-fix.html

  • Abhishek

    I would agree with Lauren that it is huge task to securely connect to multiple databases and keep it in sync at all time but this is no excuse for even the basic functionality like registration and logic to not work