Congress wants to know: Who the blank is responsible for healthcare.gov mess?

Former Bush IT chief says she would have resigned over website failures

A U.S. House committee met with an all-star federal CIO panel Wednesday, including President George W. Bush's top IT official, for answers about Healthcare.gov's recent problems. More importantly, it seemed as though the committee was looking for someone to blame.

The people in charge of federal IT operations came before Rep. Darrell Issa, the Republican chairman U.S. House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform. Among them: Federal CIO Steven VanRoeke; Frank Baitman, the CIO of the Health & Human Services Department; and other senior IT officials.

Issa, who has a manner of questioning that often seems near the edge of sarcasm, wanted to know who was accountable ultimately for Healthcare.gov.

Citing VanRoekel's prior experience as an executive at Microsoft, Issa said that "Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, and a lot of other people at Microsoft, would have had somebody's neck hung, maybe not literally," he said. They "would have said who the blank is responsible for this failure?

"Can you tell me today whose job it was to make sure that we didn't have this dreadful failure to launch," Issa said to VanRoekel. "One person, who was that person?"

In response, VanRoekel said he couldn't name one person. "I wasn't close to the actual development or coding. I'm not in a position to make that call."

Issa, incredulous, told the panel, "None of you today can tell us who failed to do their job?"

Issa had previously put the question to Baitman, who started to respond that his department "is a federated agency, the job of for running...."

Issa cut him off: "Ok, not your job. This is an orphan."

But Karen Evans, a top White House official who served as de facto CIO during the administration of President George W. Bush, and who testified later in the day on a separate panel, said she would have resigned -- particularly after seeing that the website's problems had prompted President Obama to talk publicly about them.

"I would have offered my resignation," said Evans.

In her analysis of the chain of responsibility, the person most responsible, the one whose job it would have been to make a policy, political and technology evaluation of Healthcare.gov, is the CIO of HHS. "The CIO is supposed to be nexus, the tech savvy person on the staff," she said.

Evans, a nearly 30-year veteran of federal IT before retiring, served during part of the Bush administration as the administrator for E-Government and Information Technology at the White House, with responsibility for the federal budget. The Obama administration remade that post into the federal CIO job.

In her prepared testimony, Evans called Healthcare.gov a "classic IT project failure that happens in the Federal Government too frequently."

Evans said the failure wasn't in the complexity of the rollout, the procurement process, or the testing.

"The functionality and shortcomings of Healthcare.gov are the result of bad management decisions made by policy officials within the Administration; they did this to themselves," said Evans, in her prepared testimony.

At this hearing, current IT officials worked to assure the committee that site was improving daily, and can now "process" nearly 17,000 registrants per hour, or five per second, with almost no errors.

It was also revealed at that Todd Park, the federal CTO who was also called to testify, had slept on the floor for a week in the Healthcare.gov project offices, as developers and managers wrestled with the site's problems.

The causes of the management problems appear wide-ranging, but much may have to do with how uncertain regulations and ongoing changes posed new technical issues for the IT staff.

The Governmental Accountability Office, in its testimony Wednesday, said "too often, federal IT projects run over budget, behind schedule, or fail to deliver promised functionality."

Patrick Thibodeau covers cloud computing and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed. His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

This story, "Congress wants to know: Who the blank is responsible for healthcare.gov mess?" was originally published by Computerworld.

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