Large Programming Problems

Quoting the Washington Post:

Private contractors in charge of building the federal online health insurance marketplace testified Thursday that the administration went ahead with the Oct. 1 launch of despite insufficient testing.

In their first public remarks since the debut of the problem-ridden insurance exchange, executives of the main IT companies told members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee that full tests of the Web site that should have been carried out months in advance, but began just two weeks before its rollout.

I don’t care who’s to blame. This is Washington, so everyone will do an expert job of blaming everyone else. (If you read the story, you’ll see that that’s exactly how it happened. The contractors are blaming the government agency. Democrats and Republicans are blaming each other, often with the most tenuous of links to the issue at hand.) Testing for two weeks for a website of this scale is never going to do you any good. Not that you’d expect a panel full of Washington professional politicians to include anyone with any technological savvy…

Ultimately, it’s a larger problem than anything computer science can solve. It’s typical beaurocratic nonsense. And given how poorly the current system works, drastic reform doesn’t sound like a bad idea. Here’s one alternative:

The president should use the power of the White House to end all large information technology purchases, and instead give his administration’s accomplished technologists the ability to work with agencies to make the right decisions, increase adoption of modern, incremental software development practices, like a popular one called Agile, already used in the private sector, and work with the Small Business Administration and the General Services Administration to make it easy for small businesses to contract with the government.

Large federal information technology purchases have to end. Any methodology with a 94 percent chance of failure or delay, which costs taxpayers billions of dollars, doesn’t belong in a 21st-century government.

Update: Color me skeptical that this will be fixed by the end of November. It’s just too big a pile of code to correct that quickly in any reliable way. (Also, what government project has ever moved that fast?)