Management

Healthcare.gov launch is a 'teachable moment,' says federal CIO

Steve VanRoekel 102012

'We should all be proud' of the scale and ambition of HealthCare.gov: Steven VanRoekel. (FCW file photo)

The public failures of HealthCare.gov offer a "teachable moment" for government IT executives on the evolving landscape of IT procurement and implementation, federal CIO Steven VanRoekel told a technology leadership conference in Williamsburg, Va., on Oct. 29.

In his first public remarks in seven months, VanRoekel said that the conception and design of HealthCare.gov was "bold" in a way that has not been widely appreciated.

"We should all be proud 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 in this way," VanRoekel said of the system that has been roundly criticized across the partisan divide. "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 paper approach to an online approach is something we all should be proud of in the federal IT community."

VanRoekel was speaking at the annual Executive Leadership Conference of the American Council for Technology-Industry Advisory Council (ACT-IAC).

The continued troubles of HealthCare.gov were a prominent topic of hallway conversations throughout the ACT-IAC conference, as VanRoekel acknowledged in his speech. He didn't directly take on the specific technical reasons behind the failings of the site. "Sometimes things just don't go the way you expect," he said, and recalled an episode from his time as a Microsoft executive when a piece of software he shipped had to be recalled. He also noted that public failures often trigger successful reform efforts.

"A lost laptop at VA inspired a new way of approaching the authority of the CIO, the budget, and everything else," he said, referring to a 2006 security breach that resulted in oversight investigations, a class action lawsuit, millions paid out to notify individuals that their records had been compromised, and new law governing IT at the Department of Veterans Affairs.

VanRoekel didn't speculate on precisely what lessons would be learned from the launch of HealthCare.gov, either in his speech or in remarks to reporters afterward.

"The driving force for us is getting these things working," he said. "The project seems to be on a very good trajectory."

In terms of the overall design and implementation of projects, VanRoekel said it is important to build systems that are more modular and have less "risk surface" so that failures are smaller, and development is done along iterative lines.

"There are aspects of government that made it hard to move at the speed at which you would love to move [including] procurement and the way we implement technology," he said. The launch of HealthCare.gov provides a "teachable moment," according to VanRoekel -- a context for examining how government acquires and implements IT.

About the Author

Adam Mazmanian is executive editor of FCW.

Before joining the editing team, Mazmanian was an FCW staff writer covering Congress, government-wide technology policy and the Department of Veterans Affairs. Prior to joining FCW, Mazmanian was technology correspondent for National Journal and served in a variety of editorial roles at B2B news service SmartBrief. Mazmanian has contributed reviews and articles to the Washington Post, the Washington City Paper, Newsday, New York Press, Architect Magazine and other publications.

Click here for previous articles by Mazmanian. Connect with him on Twitter at @thisismaz.


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