One man's 'detailed knowledge'...
- By Adam Mazmanian
- Nov 19, 2014
Former U.S. CTO Todd Park said that although he received detailed briefings on occasion, he was not immersed in the development of HealthCare.gov.
House Republicans took aim at former U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park in a hearing designed to shed light on Park's role in the run-up to the troubled launch of HealthCare.gov in October 2013, while Democrats attempted to deflect GOP charges that Park knew more about problems with the site than he has acknowledged.
A few glancing blows were landed, but no knockout was recorded.
At issue is whether prelaunch email traffic between Park and others suggests that the former CTO had a leadership role in the site's development and whether his previous testimony on the subject was misleading.
Park, whose appearance Nov. 19 before the Science, Space and Technology Committee's Oversight Subcommittee was compelled by subpoena, was grilled by Republicans about email messages to and from senior officials at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Park's role as co-chairman of a steering committee convened by the Office of Management and Budget, and his knowledge of potential cybersecurity risks posed by use of the site.
Subcommittee Chairman Paul Broun (R-Ga.) said the difficulty in getting Park to appear suggested that the former CTO has something to hide.
"Perhaps it is that you knew there were serious problems with HealthCare.gov prior to the launch but you did not convey them up the chain in your briefings with the president," Broun said in his opening statement. "Or, perhaps you did, and they were ignored because of this administration's relentless pursuit to launch HealthCare.gov on Oct. 1, 2013, no matter what the consequences."
Republicans didn't appear to shake much out that was not already on the record. Park mostly stuck to a narrow line of responses -- that the detailed business of managing HealthCare.gov and cybersecurity preparations resided within CMS, that he is not a cybersecurity expert, and that his role in advance of the launch of HealthCare.gov was advisory and mostly involved collecting information to brief senior officials, including President Barack Obama on at least two occasions. Park apparently briefed Obama about a McKinsey and Co. report that included a list of critical risks to the HealthCare.gov system.
Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-Ore.) characterized the hearing as "a game of gotcha about a whole series of emails."
Park was led by questioners through a tabbed binder with email printouts and asked to respond to the contents of various messages. For instance, Republicans wanted to know what it meant that Park had a meeting with CMS Deputy CIO Henry Chao, who acted as project manager on HealthCare.gov, a meeting Park described as a "deep dive" into progress on the site. Republicans intimated that such a description meant that Park had day-to-day oversight responsibilities regarding site development.
A Republican report released in advance of the hearing flagged Park's testimony a year ago before the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee. "It is difficult to reconcile Mr. Park's statements under oath with the emails received thus far from [the Department of Health and Human Services] regarding his involvement with HealthCare.gov," the report states.
A report from Democrats argues the opposite -- that it "is hard to reconcile the claim that Park was deeply involved in the development of HealthCare.gov with the reality that Park could not even get access to the website experience as it was being developed."
Most of the email traffic presented in the report was released by the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee last November, in a report documenting the awareness of those inside CMS and the White House (including Park) about the possibility that the launch of HealthCare.gov would not go well.
Republicans presented some interesting tidbits about Park's role in the days before the launch. According to his testimony, Park facilitated a request to have new hardware airlifted to the Culpeper, Va., data centers of Verizon Terremark, the hosting vendor. Park even conveyed a request from CMS about the possibility of using the Air Force to deliver the computer hardware.
Private air transport was used, but the decision to airlift hardware to a data center reinforces the image of a project in dire need of help. Park also participated in email discussions with Verizon Terremark personnel about speeding up the installation of new components.
Ultimately, the factual dispute might come down to what is meant by "detailed knowledge" of the site. Park maintained that the people working directly on the project had access to voluminous reports on the site's day-to-day development, testing and security. Park said that although he received detailed briefings on occasion, he was not immersed in the development of HealthCare.gov.
He was also pointedly disinvited from a planned walk-through of the site from a user perspective in July. Subcommittee ranking member Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.) asked Park if he had any "control or authority over budgets, staff or contractors." Park, who testified under oath, said he did not.
One argument against Park's deep involvement is what he did after he was handed responsibility for fixing the site.
His work on the subsequent "tech surge" became Park's full-time job beginning soon after the site's failed launch and lasting until the end of the expanded open-enrollment period in April 2014. Park's management of efforts to fix HealthCare.gov was a 180-degree departure from how CMS had handled the job: A key contractor was dismissed, a general contractor was named from among the vendors working on the job, agile methods were used, and target dates with specific performance goals were announced.
Indeed, in his answers, Park appeared less concerned about falling into perjury traps than in not casting aspersions on those responsible for the development of HealthCare.gov.
In email messages, Park comes across as a relentlessly upbeat motivator who delivers cheery messages and brings cupcakes and snacks to IT workers toiling on last-minute improvements to the site. But Park also said "the launch was unacceptable" in response to questioning, though he refused to point fingers at any individuals.
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.