Management launch is a 'teachable moment,' says federal CIO

Steve VanRoekel 102012

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

The public failures of 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 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 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, 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 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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Reader comments

Thu, Oct 31, 2013 Al

The politicians are technically correct when they say the web site flub is not important in the long run. At some point there will be a web site, and it will get the job done. The thing that alarms me is that the Affordable Care Act prices are unaffordable, and folks are already losing health insurance plans they were satisfied with. This is where the real damage will be done- not so much the money sunk into the web site. The web site is a distraction- the prices and declining health care quality are the story.

Wed, Oct 30, 2013 Ron Ellis, CEO Dallas, TX

The debacle is typical of large scale system development and implementation failures. Anyone with experience in Information Technology for the past 20 years knows of the pitfalls. A beta version of the system should never have been considered for prime time... It's all ones and zeros which require a great deal of integration testing. Shame on Mr. VanRoekel for referring to this as just a "Teachable Moment". There is no excuse for such negligence.

Wed, Oct 30, 2013 Retired Fed SES and Concerned Citizen

Technology is not the problem At the heart of this but the failure of management from the White House down including OMB and the Federal CIO. Van Roekel himself said the technologies involved are use of open data, modular development, and linking legacy systems - all of which have been done on many large systems in government and industry. Yes, this is perhaps a bigger and more complex system than others, but the technologies are well known. How could anyone have missed the significance of the IT system that was to power the signature program of the President's two terms in office. The design and implementation of should have had all hands on deck from day one, including the Federal CIO. This was even more necessary for a system that would affect millions of citizens all across the country and especially those who lack insurance and were a special focus of the ACA itself. A competent team never wants its boss to be embarrassed by a system failure, but that is exactly what happened here. Later in his speech Van Roekel advised the federal managers in the audience to chunk projects, fail fast, then learn and improve. What happened here was fail at a massive scale and release a system known by those on the inside to have serious problems. Now the Administration is in crisis recovery mode to deliver a modified system by November 30. They have already admitted that it will still be be unable to deliver top quality customer service. How well would any other federal CIO be received at OMB if their comments on a massive system failure inside their enterprise was this same happy talk about a "teachable moment?"

Wed, Oct 30, 2013

Since the debacle of the system became apparent, all of us have been wondering how in the world this could have happened on the President's flagship initiative -- with little or no warning beforehand. I agree wholeheartedly with other comments that a "bold concept and design" are meaningless if it doesn't work. "Bold and new" sounds exciting and profitable for the firms hired to deliver on it. However, it probably would have been better to look at other systems that already handle massive numbers of users every day, and do it successfully -- there are examples in the private sector and even in Government. We have plenty of other issues to focus our national attention on, and this too shall pass, but what an unnecessary embarrassment to deal with right now. If we find out what really went wrong, perhaps some kind procurement reform would be a positive outcome, but that's really looking hard for a silver lining. We'll see.

Wed, Oct 30, 2013

What? Are you incapable of learning from things that have ALREADY happened? It's that simple. Either you learn and move on, or waste your time mouthing off about what YOU think is wrong....... Just saying.

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