Saturday, October 19, 2013

The HealthCare.Gov Fiasco

Frank Pasquale

Brilliant at big data-based campaigning, President Obama's team appears less adept in the realm of health exchanges. I've collected a few perspectives on the problems here. Computer scientist Steven Bellovin offers these valuable perspectives:
The inherent nature of software is that it demands perfection. Computers do exactly what they're told to do. Even small errors can be disastrous. For example, one of the first American space probes to Venus was lost in part because of a single missing hyphen character in a program. . . . There are standard approaches, standard tools and standard software for building large-scale websites. Using them correctly takes good planning and management. That was in short supply here.
The contractors building couldn't control the budget or the timing for the regulations; those were the product of Washington politics. While there are apparent programming and design errors, it's quite likely that most are the result of requirement changes rather than incompetence. The overall failure appears to have been one of project management on the part of the government. In the best of all possible worlds, the site would have launched seamlessly to serve the entire nation. But software is hard. Inexperience doesn't help. And politics just makes things messier.
For more on the problem of translating law into software, check out Harry Surden's articles on the strengths (and limits) of computation in public law and private law contexts.

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