In the wake of the failed launch of Healthcare.gov there has been some spectacular insider coverage, particularly by the Washington Post and New York Times, of the failure of the private contractors to deliver what they promised when they won the assignments to build the federal insurance exchange. But while there has been some mention of problems with the contract procurement process itself (focusing on the notion that in Washington the IT providers who win the contracts are better at winning IT contracts than at doing cutting-edge IT), one piece of the story has so far been missing: Who actually decided to award the Healthcare.gov contract to CGI and the others who shared the work? And on exactly what basis?
We know the winners had invested heavily over the years to get on a list of pre-qualified companies who could bid on contracts like this one, a tortuous process that the best and brightest technology companies outside the Beltway typically don’t bother with because they have too much more rewarding work to do in the private sector, where the bidding process is more straightforward. But we still haven’t gotten a good picture of who in the government runs these processes.
I know from some reporting I’ve done recently that in Kentucky, to take one example, the contractor that won the job to build that state’s Obamacare website was chosen by a committee that did not include the person who was actually in charge of building the Kentucky exchange. In other words, the person who would supervise the outside vendor, and whose career depended on whether the contractor did a good job, had nothing to do with picking the contractor. In fact, I’m told that the official in charge of the website didn’t meet the leader of the contracting team until after the choice was made.
It turns out that the lead Kentucky contractor — Deloitte Consulting — did a great job, and its team worked perfectly in synch with the state officials supervising them. But that seems to be more a matter of good luck than a procurement process designed to produce teamwork and accountability. Imagine a private corporation picking a supplier to work on a key project without the executive supervising the project being allowed to meet the supplier’s team leader first.
I’m assuming that’s what happened in Washington at the Department of Health and Human Services. As with most states, federal procurement regulations require a walled-off selection process intended to prevent corruption by having mid-level civil servants rather than higher-ranking officials, who are often political appointees, make these big-money choices.