5 ways to avoid HealthCare.gov mishap

By Diana Manos
10:58 AM
To say an IT project like HealthCare.gov was a large-scale, complex behemoth undertaking is an understatement, to say the least. All the myriad elements of the project must be successfully interconnected for it to function properly, which clearly did not occur. 
Neglect any one of these elements and it can lead to "outright failure," says Richard Spires a consultant who formerly served as the Department of Homeland Security's chief information officer.
At a Nov. 13 House oversight hearing, Spires offered tips to be gleaned from HealthCare.Gov's difficult launch. Spires, who left DHS in May 2013, said he based this advice solely on information about the project he learned from listening to Congressional hearings and from news stories, rather than internal knowledge.
Here are Spires' five tips for launching a winning IT project:
1. Ensure there is a set of mature management processes used in running the program. It's essential to have an appropriate system development life cycle, which lays out the approach or approaches that will be used to design, develop, test, and deploy the system, Spires says. Make sure the plans include "a robust set of project management disciplines," including schedule, estimation, requirements, configuration and risk management processes.
2. Ensure there's a solid business architecture supported by a solid technical architecture. Projects must be driven by what the organization leadership has in mind, not what the tech department does. "I am surprised how often there is not a solid high-level business architecture in place early in the program’s life -- if not it typically leads to major requirements changes during system development, testing and deployment," Spires says. Find out early what the senior business executives want the program to deliver at a minimum for an initial launch. This can greatly reduce program risk.
3. Set a program governance model in place that recognizes the proper roles and authorities of the important stakeholders. Communication is key, of course. The business side of the organization must be "intimately involved." CEOs must make the decisions on functionality trade-offs and should help to define requirements. Make sure there is a capable program management office running the project using reliable best business practices, and have a formal program governance board meet regularly with the PMO. "So many programs falter because the stakeholders are pulling the program in differing directions; an effective governance structure will drive stakeholder alignment and provide clear and informed decisions for a program manager to rely upon," Spires says.
4. Have a set of skilled and experienced personnel leading the program. You'll need more than just a program manager, Spires says. For large complex projects, he recommends also having a requirements manager, systems architecture lead, test manager and a deployment manager, for starters. "The most common reason large IT programs fail is the lack of properly skilled and experienced leadership in the program management office," Spires says.
5. Develop the proper relationships with the contractor or contractors who are supporting the program. Make sure to build formal and informal relationships with contractors. The formal aspect is the contract, in which the scope of work, terms, and incentives are codified. This is where the procurement organization, with the contracting officer(s) being part of the team, need to work closely with or even be embedded as part of the PMO to make sure contracts are structured in such a way to best support what the program is working to achieve. The informal aspect is the management of the contractors via the PMO. "I always look for a program in which the contractors are well integrated into the program, well understand their roles, others’ roles, and there is open and candid communications amongst the parties. This type of environment will enable issues to be identified early, innovative ideas to be surfaced and discussed, and informed decisions made," Spires says.
Of the HealthCare.gov site, Spires said, "I'm not calling this a failure; it's troubled, and we need to get it fixed. We need the CIOs to be strengthened in this government from the standpoint of their empowerment," Spires says. "The troubled launch of HealthCare.gov pains me -- as someone who has great passion for wanting to make government IT more effective, this public spectacle once again casts federal IT in a very negative light."
This story first appeared in Government Health IT here