Building a website may seem very easy and for some it is. If your website is just a plain website with little to no functionality it can be a very simple build and a Content Management System like WordPress can make it even easier. But of course not every site is that way. Your website is a part of your workforce as it can be a storefront that is open 24/7 for you to sell your goods or offer your services. What your website can do can be extremely complex and it can be a vital cog in your day-to-day operations.

One of the most common questions that we at Nicely Done Sites field is how long it will take to build a site. There is no set answer to that but there are a number of things that can be done to make the build go much smoother and thus get the site up and running faster. To illustrate that, we examine the debacle that was the rollout of healthcare.gov to examine why it is important to have details set in stone and why clear communication is important. Most of the time our clients leave the details to us but having a clear path understood by the client and the developer can go a long way towards a successful project.

Affordable Healthcare!

One of Barack Obama’s signature promises on the campaign trail was providing affordable health care for the uninsured or for people who had preexisting conditions. This would change the landscape of healthcare in the United States and it became law in 2010. To provide easy access to the public so they could see what their options related to private health insurance were it should be no surprise that a website would be the best route for the government to take and healthcare.gov was born.

Work on the site began in 2010 with a planned October 1, 2013 launch. The website would provide information on different plans available and allow you to enroll in a plan. States were invited to build their own sites or they could take part in the Federal exchange. Most chose to take part in the Federal exchange. A demo site was built that allowed people to browse different plans in 2010 and the ease of this build may have led to overconfidence in the Center for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS).

A Steep Task

The Department of Health and Human Services would be in charge of building the website with CMS responsible for the actual building and testing. Three years may seem like a long time to build a website but this was a website that would need to potentially accommodate 150 million Americans with accurate information from different insurers and take in their private information. There were a lot of things to keep in mind.

Poor Planning And Communication

Problems of course began from the outset. The first step was planning and as it turned out the planning was inadequate. HHS did not plan properly for the technical and operational needs of the site. Poor communication between HHS and CMS caused further inefficiency and poor leadership in the building team prevented direction and unity. In fact, no leader of the project was ever set. With CMS team members spread around not only the Washington DC area but also across the country this was a recipe for disaster. At the same time high turnover in CMS resulted in new team members constantly coming on board and having to be brought up to speed. Mismanagement of what could have been the most important technical government build of the 21st Century was off to a poor start.

Too Many People Involved

Part of the problem was also the immense amount of money thrown at the contractor to build the website, who then sub-contracted some of the work out. When it comes to government contracts this process is not uncommon, and let’s face it government contracts can be quite lucrative. In this case though the contractors and sub-contractors hired on many programmers in order to complete the job with the 5 million lines of code it required and a review after the fact revealed that many of them were incompetent. A smaller, more compact and experienced team would have been more efficient.

Constant Changes

As the website was built new issues reared their heads. With this being the Obama Administration’s signature effort constant change was in order while at the same time important decisions were still being made. An agile programming method was intended so that parts of the site could be built and tested while others were planned. Unfortunately this method allowed policymakers to constantly create new requirements and specifications which forced at times major changes to the website. Changes had to be documented and tested and many of these requests came far too late in the process.

Changes were also to be reviewed by a board composed of members of the different agencies in HHS but this board was not effectively managed. Meetings were constantly cancelled and change requests were not promptly addressed. On top of that when changes were accepted contractors were not informed promptly. Some CMS staff and contractors did not even bother submitting changes to the board. Problems were mounting and warnings were present but CMS did not recognize them or ignored them all the while maintaining a hard launch date of October 1.

The administration wanted the website working to give the American public time to enroll before the January 1, 2014 deadline. It needed the website to not only work, but work flawlessly out of the gate. That would prove to be far too ambitious and the deadline was moved back due to the poorly functioning website.

Last Minute Fixes Not Working

By the time the launch date approached last minute tweaks and corrections to try to fix the site were ineffective. The launch of the site proved to be an unmitigated disaster. Only six people managed to enroll on the first day. Most people were never even able to load the site at all or were given a message that it was busy.

At first Todd Park, the chief technology officer for the White House claimed that the site was seeing too many visitors. High demand did cause a crash of the site within 2 hours of its launch as 250,000 users went to the site. They had anticipated being able to handle 15,000 visitors an hour causing the site to become inaccessible as time went on. It was just a vindication of Obama’s promises as Americans seemed to be excited about this he opined for a time. 

But that was not the truth and Republican lawmakers had a field day when they found out. A traffic jam was happening on the site but it boiled down to the fact that different parts of the website built by different government subcontractors were not working together. In the end it turned out that testing of the website had been almost nil and simple testing would have revealed this issue.

Damage Control

The Obama Administration went on a public damage control tour as administration officials went before Congress and the American people. Comedians had a field day. Jon Stewart, the then-host of the Daily Show, challenged HHS Director Kathleen Sebilius to enroll on the website before he could download every movie ever created from the Internet. The interview on that show did not go well for Sebilius as Stewart called her out for lying to his face in the closing segment of the show. Others like then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, one of the most vocal critics of the bill, tried to use it to prove a political point to a varying degree of success

Fixing The Site

Sebilius would take the fall for the administration resigning in 2014. Fixing the website required a completely new strategy from CMS and took months if not years to completely fix. On top of that a security breach on the site in 2014 proved that security was lacking. The administration downplayed this claiming that one server was hit and that server was not intended to be connected to the Internet. After review it was discovered that the server was protected only by a generic password but it did not expose any personal information. The Obama Administration had even more egg on their faces and more questions to answer from an increasingly hostile Congress.

Another breach in 2018 did expose personal information

How Does This Apply To You?

So, how does this relate to your website? Your site is nowhere near as complex as healthcare.gov but there are many lessons that can be learned by both the developers like Nicely Done Sites and you, the client. 

The first is that planning is very important. It helps to establish a clear direction for what the site is going to do, how it is going to work and who is going to do what. A clear division of labor with clear leadership is extremely important when building a website as it is with anything.

Change Is Not Necessarily A Good Thing

Another major hindrance for the website was the constant changes that were ordered by the administration. Some of these required complete rebuilds of parts of the site and complete rewritings of code. This is not a simple process and it negates any testing that has already been performed while possibly further breaking other parts of the site. 

We get it, you as a client might have a revelation in the middle of the night about a feature that you would like to add. There is nothing wrong with that but when a website is being built more than likely it will require extra work to incorporate it in. That increases the number of hours working on the project and the end cost. We’re not saying that it is a bad thing but it is something that should not be taken lightly once a build is started. It may require rewriting code and it will require testing to make sure it works. That takes time.

Test, Test And Test Some More

The failure of the healthcare.gov site also underscores the importance of good testing. In this case a hard deadline set by CMS prevented proper testing and the end result was no surprise. The launch of the website was a major embarrassment. Of course with this, testing would have delayed the launch which would have been embarrassing but the end result would have been at least an accessible website. While testing may not catch every issue it will help to catch many of them before a single member of the public can see them.

At the same time, if a website is not ready for a launch date it would be best to delay its launch. You want to have a functioning site. A delay will hurt but having a working website is much better than having a broken one.

Don’t Ignore Security

Last is of course security. The website lacked serious security as it has been breached several times with thieves making off with the personal information of Americans. It should have been no surprise that a repository of information like this, a healthcare site run by the government, would be a major target for cyber criminals and security should have been a top priority. It wasn’t and it was ignored in some cases in the race to get the site operational. Our healthcare is important but so is our cyber security.

The High Cost Of Fixing A Broken Site

All told the fix of the website cost $824 million, which had ballooned from the estimated $464 million. A full investigation by the Inspector General was conducted and the report can be read here. There is very little confidence within the American public when it comes to government efficiency and with projects like healthcare.gov that should be no surprise. Government and efficiency are two words that are very rarely linked together. In this case too many people were involved with too many people being able to order changes with little to no regard of how it would impact the project. Healthcare.gov might be the most famous website failure in the history of the Internet and it all could have been avoided. 

This underscores the importance of having a clear defined plan to build the website that both the developer and the client understand. There will come a time when changes cannot be made easily to a website being built and that needs to be made clear before building the site. Any change can be made at a later date and thoroughly tested in a sandbox environment as part of a much smoother process. When combined with good security, that is a recipe for success when building a website. It doesn’t matter if you are in the healthcare industry or another field, this applies to any website build.

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