The myriad glitches that have marred the rollout of the Web portal for Americans to sign up for health insurance stand as what the CIO of the federal government calls a "teachable moment."
Speaking at a government IT conference on Tuesday, U.S. CIO Steven VanRoekel acknowledged that the launch of Healthcare.gov has been troubled, but suggested, hopefully, that it will serve as an object lesson that will inspire, rather than deter, ambitious government IT projects in the future.
"Our goal, number one, hands down, the president reminds every day: get this thing fixed, make sure it's working and meet Americans' expectations on this," VanRoekel said. "As an aside, our focus, my focus, is also about what can we learn from this. How can we learn? And what can we take from this experience to say we shouldn't do things this way?"
Product Launches Often Require Substantial Retooling
VanRoekel, who serves as just the second CIO of the federal government, came to that position after a nearly two-decade career with Microsoft, a company, he pointed out, where product launches often require substantial retooling.
Recounting one instance when the division he oversaw at the software giant had to recall a product from the market, VanRoekel drew a parallel with the healthcare rollout.
"It is a complex project," he said of the government website. "There is incredible complexity out there, and in that complexity sometimes in v1 things just don't go the way you expect."
He added: "Even in large multinational companies this stuff happens, and I think the key there is, what do you take from this? Is this a teachable moment for you?"
Government IT Must Emulate the Innovative Spirit of the Private Sector
VanRoekel's overarching message continues the theme that he, and his predecessor, Vivek Kundra, the country's first federal CIO, have advanced: that government IT must adapt, grow more agile, and emulate the innovative spirit of the private sector. That includes embracing sweeping trends that, for the government's $80 billion IT apparatus, entail major initiatives to shift operations to the cloud, consolidate data centers and deploy new mobile technologies.
The challenge is bigger than just IT deployments. From an organizational standpoint, federal agencies' tech operations would benefit from a consolidation that would see more centralized authority consolidated under a high-level CIO, VanRoekel argues. That way, rather than each sub-agency and bureau running its own commodity operations like email and data centers, those functions could be run centrally and delivered as services.
"It lets the edge of the network think about mission every single day," VanRoekel said.
In the context of the online healthcare rollout, VanRoekel stressed the technical challenges that the site's builders faced in getting the portal up and running. In that context, VanRoekel sees the launch, for all its problems, as a laudable step forward for a government endeavoring to shift its operations out of the analog era and into the digital.
"One of the key things that I want to note, and this doesn't get a lot of coverage, and a lot of discussion out there in the public, is the boldness by which the approach was taken on this project. You know, we should all be proud of the fact that something this complex, this integrated to legacy systems -- and there are mainframes out there that this thing hooks to -- was done at Internet scale and taken online and this way," he said.
"I mean, just the fact that we have transactions moving between federal agencies, using open data, using modular development, using technology in a way that moves really from a 19th and 20th century government paper approach to an online approach is something we all should be proud of in the federal IT community. Thinking about that boldness is key to where we go forward," VanRoekel said.
Our goal here is to definitely fix this thing, make sure it's working, meet people's expectations, because I can assure you that our expectations are even higher than those outside of government. But I think we should be proud of the boldness by which we approached this."
Kenneth Corbin is a Washington, D.C.-based writer who covers government and regulatory issues for CIO.com.