Monthly Archives: February 2016

Software magic: epic bungling of healthcare.gov

In October, 2013, New York Times reporters Robert Pear, Sharon LaFraniere and Ian Austen first reported gross conflicts and disorganization among contractors developing the major U.S. health-care Web site, healthcare.gov, and their supervisors who were federal government employees. While the Times described problems soon after a crisis became public, its reporters did not explain how the problems developed.

Three weeks later, Washington Post reporters Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin traced them to blunders committed by lawyers who were serving as government officials but had no significant operations backgrounds, technical competence or business experience–their authority underwritten directly by Pres. Obama.

Protracted failures of the U.S. healthcare.gov Web site became a classic case of the “software runaway,” memorialized about 20 years ago in the like-named book by Robert L. Glass. Recently, the inspector general for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services provided a legal-eye view of this epic disaster.

Within the industry, a disease had been recognized by the late 1960s, with crashes of early airline reservation systems as the major, public danger signs. After a few years, remedies were known, and software professionals were addressing issues when clients and employers allowed them the time and responsibility to do that. The Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie-Mellon University gradually created a new profession: “software architect.”

However, the lure of “coding” as a source of instant magic remained amazingly seductive and has continued to undermine efforts. Project failures remain common, although few become as dramatic as the one that almost capsized the federal Affordable Health Care program. The root causes are usually the same: muddlers in charge of projects–lacking strong skills and strong character. Muddlers can be pleasant to work with and are often successful in some roles. Developing new software is not one of those, nor is designing a new bridge.

Assigning blame: As Daniel Levinson, inspector general for Health and Human Services, wrote, core elements in the recent disaster were:
Poor leadership: “HealthCare.gov lacked clear project leadership to give direction and unity of purpose, responsiveness in execution and a comprehensive view of progress.”
Poor management: “[The office] mismanaged the key…development contract, with frequent changes, problematic technological decisions and limited oversight of contractor performance.”

The software, coordinating transactions between millions of users and hundreds of back-office systems, would have been a nightmare on a sunny day. As usual, the foul-ups began at the beginning: writing requirements. The approach in nearly all durable efforts has been to start modestly and build out in steps. Disregarding readily found advice, spun from a long history of painful failures, government nitwits bought into the aptly named “big bang” approach: launch everything–all at once–and make it slick and shiny, and thus very complicated.

Chief Muddler at Health and Human Services was Marilyn Tavenner, the former administrator of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services–not a “dear, sweet woman” but by training a nurse and street-wise organizer. Trying to direct technology, she was out of her depth. She lacked the sense to find and hire someone who could do the job.

While manufacturing a disaster, she had plenty of help from White House nitwits. They had only dreams of sharing limelight in a splendid performance. They had no industry backgrounds and no role in making anything actually work. Up against those would-be luminaries, Ms. Tavenner lacked the character to say “No,” and she lacked the skills to see she was merely rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic.

Remedies and wreckers: Mr. Levinson, the inspector general, seems to think remedies are obvious. He calls for “clear leadership.” However, his approach of “project leaders” would not help when designated leaders were also nitwits or muddlers. He is on sounder ground seeking “factors of organizational culture” that might help. However, as a career bureaucrat and a lawyer, Mr. Levinson does not seem to understand just what those factors might be or how to get them.

No major news source has yet described how a senior Administration official behind the blunders, Nancy-Ann Min DeParle–former director of the Office of Health Reform at the White House and from 2011 to 2013 Pres. Obama’s deputy chief of staff for policy–was allowed to quit the government before the health-care reform program began operating.

An ambitious person, regarded as a health-care policy expert, Ms. DeParle had served in prominent positions in the federal government and the state government of Tennessee, where she spent much of her youth and graduated from college. Her most obvious blunder, failing to set and then freeze program requirements, allowed a stream of changes ordered when efforts were already gravely behind schedule.

By failing to name key perpetrators in the healthcare.gov collapse and failing to state plainly what they did wrong, Mr. Levinson, the inspector general, emulates ancient Tibetan lamas. He is spinning prayer-wheels. His report will be shelved and forgotten, as federal government lurches toward its next appointment with disaster.

– Craig Bolon, Brookline, MA, February 23, 2016


Daniel R. Levinson, U.S. HHS inspector general, CMMS management of the federal marketplace: case study, February, 2016

Amy Goldstein, HHS failed to heed many warnings that HealthCare.gov was in trouble, Washington Post, February 22, 2016

Robert Pear, Sharon LaFraniere and Ian Austen, From the start, signs of trouble in federal project, New York Times, October 13, 2013

Sharon LaFraniere, Ian Austen and Robert Pear, Specialists see weeks of work ahead on federal health-care exchange, New York Times, October 21, 2013

Amy Goldstein and Juliet Eilperin, HealthCare.gov: How political fear was pitted against technical needs, Washington Post, November 2, 2013

Robert L. Glass, Software Runaways: Monumental Software Disasters, Prentice Hall, 1997

Diversity Commission: staying the course

A regular meeting of the Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations Commission on Wednesday, February 17, started at 6:30 pm in the Denny Room at the Brookline Health Center. Once again the agenda included review of the commission’s recent statement on institutional racism in the Brookline work force. That statement had been read by Alex Coleman, chair of the commission, at a hearing–organized as more than two hours of “public comment”–held by the Board of Selectmen on January 5.

The commission meeting attracted some notice, with Ellen Ishkanian reporting for the Boston Globe. Aside from occasional visits to the Board of Selectmen and the School Committee, since the 1970s there has rarely been a Globe reporter at a town board or commission meeting. Bernard Greene, the first African-American ever elected to the Brookline Board of Selectmen and the board’s delegate to the commission, stayed for the full duration of this meeting. At the previous meeting, he left after making a brief statement.

Disputes and lawsuits: Disputes over racism in Brookline’s work force became stronger after a federal civil rights lawsuit was filed on behalf of Brookline firefighter Gerald Alston in December, 2015. Mr. Alston had truncated a previous state lawsuit and a state civil rights complaint that were begun in hopes, so far unrealized, of settling his charges about racial mistreatment.

Racist practices had been tacit in Brookline since at least the Reconstruction era, following the Civil War. They became officially recognized concerns with creation of the former Human Relations Commission at the 1970 annual town meeting. Once tolerated practices became explicitly illegal after passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 [Public law 88-352], sponsored by former President Kennedy–a Brookline native–but enacted after Mr. Kennedy’s assassination and during the Lyndon Johnson administration.

While some media seem to be making sport from Brookline’s struggles–as though novel or surprising–that could be because a substantially upper-income community has been providing public exposure of situations similar to ones simmering–and sometimes boiling–in less wealthy places. Last year 12 New York City police officers filed a federal civil rights lawsuit, alleging racial targeting and arrest quotas.

According to Saki Knafo, writing in the New York Times, “The lawsuit claims that commanders now use euphemisms…pressuring officers to ‘be more proactive’ or to ‘get more activity’ instead of explicitly ordering them to bring in, say, one arrest and 10 tickets by the end of the month.” In Brookline, the town administrator was quoted, saying, “…use of sick leave and other accrued leave is carefully regulated,” after pay of a protesting black police officer had been docked.

Institutional racism: On February 17, Alex Coleman, chair of Brookline’s diversity commission, began the meeting by recalling that consensus on the commission had been to “stand by the statement” made January 5 about institutional racism but “provide additional information.” He said the January statement was “one town body expressing its opinion to another one.” Dr. Coleman noted that the commission “did not have formalized fact-finding…we don’t have the authority to do that.”

When replacing Brookline’s former Human Relations / Youth Resources Commission with its current Diversity, Inclusion and Community Relations Commission, authority to “secure the investigation of…complaints charging discrimination” was deliberately removed. A new “mission” statement was added, with an obvious effect of limiting the scope of the current commission. [previous and current Article 3.14 of Brookline general bylaws] Those changes were proposed by a committee that had been appointed by the Board of Selectmen, on which then and current board member Nancy Daly and current board member Bernard Greene served.

Commissioner Malcolm Cawthorne, an African-American Brookline native and Brookline High School history teacher, asked, “Are we going to have a statement tonight? I don’t agree we need to make a statement.” Commissioner Anthony Naro, a lawyer who works as a public defender, said, “The only benefit to a statement…is it can serve an olive branch.” Dr. Coleman recognized Martin Rosenthal, a Precinct 9 town meeting member and a lawyer, who also served on the committee that proposed the current commission bylaw.

Statements: Mr. Rosenthal presented a draft of an additional statement that he urged the commission to adopt. The intent, he said, was “to build bridges.” The January 5 statement, he claimed, contained “things that…were not factual findings but are being used that way…You won’t do well if you don’t have credibility in the whole community.” However, Mr. Rosenthal did not explain why, if he wanted the commission to conduct fact-finding investigations, he had opted to remove that authority when he was serving on the committee that proposed the current bylaw.

Mr. Greene took a hard line, as at the previous meeting, saying to commissioners, “You need to rescind the [January 5] statement…It’s not just destructive but wrong and incoherent…an embarrassment…starting out with a poke in the eye….” Like Mr. Rosenthal, Mr. Greene did not explain why, if he wanted the commission to conduct fact-finding investigations, he had opted to remove that authority when he was serving on the committee that proposed the current bylaw.

Mr. Naro responded, saying, “The commission always viewed [the January 5 statement] and presented it as an opinion…Attorneys might have tried to morph it into something else.” He described watching the January 5 hearing with his family, saying, “By the time Alex made his statement, my family were flabbergasted at what we heard…The town’s reputation was already in great disrepair…If half the [January 5] allegations were true, it’s disturbing…listening that night to all those people get up.”

Commissioner Enid Shapiro agreed, saying, “There is racism…It’s not hidden away some place…We need to pay attention to this. It’s time for us…[to be] coming forward with a description of what we might do.” Her reaction to the arguments from Mr. Rosenthal and Mr. Greene was firm. She said, “We need to move on from this discussion…We’re just becoming angrier…[We should] move beyond this discussion.”

Mr. Cawthorne concurred. “As a black man who chooses to live in the town,” he said, “being profiled…I ran into racism [growing up] at Devotion [School]…We stand by our statement, our statement that took at most one minute compared to the 1-3/4 hours before it…You walk into the shoes that were there before me.” After more discussion involving all the commissioners who were present, Ms. Shapiro and Mr. Cawthorne moved to table further review of the January 5 statement. The other commissioners agreed, in a unanimous vote.

– Beacon staff, Brookline, MA, February 19, 2016


Saki Knafo, A black police officer’s fight against the New York City police department, New York Times, February 21, 2016

Ellen Ishkanian, Brookline officials spar over ‘institutional racism’ claim, Boston Globe, February 18, 2016

Jenna Fisher, Crowd rallies at Brookline Town Hall to support officers alleging racist treatment, (Brockton, MA) Enterprise, January 12, 2016

Jenna Fisher, Brookline selectmen flee public comment on alleged racism, (Quincy, MA) Patriot Ledger, December 22, 2015

Benjamin Weiser, Class-action lawsuit, blaming police quotas, takes on criminal summonses, New York Times, May 18, 2015

Jackson Marciana, Police abuse cases forced New York City to pay $428 million in false arrest and civil rights settlements, Countercurrent News, October 19, 2014

Wesley Lowery, Only 24 percent of population, blacks in Boston make up 63 percent of stop and frisk encounters, Washington Post, October 8, 2014

Slavery to freedom: escaping from Brookline, Hidden Brookline, Town of Brookline, MA, c. 2010

Diversity Commission: messengers and victims, Brookline Beacon, January 29, 2016

Board of Selectmen: complaints of racial mistreatment, Brookline Beacon, January 27, 2016

Board of Selectmen: hearing airs racial tensions, Brookline Beacon, January 6, 2016

Civil rights lawsuit: town and individuals accused, Brookline Beacon, December 14, 2015

Advisory Committee: neighborhoods, snow, human relations, Brookline Beacon, April 30, 2014

Craig Bolon, Human relations: more than advice?, Brookline Beacon, April 26, 2014

Human Relations Youth Resources Commission: coping with changes, Brookline Beacon, April 24, 2014