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Feds set up internal consulting group for web projects, but what about contracts?

In announcing the new U.S. Digital Service (USDS), Chief Information Officer Steve VanRoekel told the Washington Post: “Think of this as [a team of] management consultants that helps you understand your gaps.”

The Playbook is a next step for the digital president and a response to the disaster.[icopyright one button toolbar]

There were gaping holes – not just gaps – related to both project management and testing in the launch. Yet as Computer World’s Patrick Thibodeau wrote at the time, “A majority of large IT projects fail to meet deadlines, are over budget and don’t make their users happy.”

According to data from The Standish Group, “Of 3,555 projects from 2003 to 2012 that had labor costs of at least $10 million, only 6.4% were successful.”

Last year, McKinsey & Company reported, “On average, large IT projects run 45 percent over budget and 7 percent over time, while delivering 56 percent less value than predicted.”

And CIO magainze reported in 2005 that poor requirements management is a bigger factor in project failure — 7-out-of-10 failures — than poor technology or missed deadlines.

There’s a lot going on here.

USDS Playbook is only one factor in success

The USDS Playbook is comprised of 13 “plays” based upon best practices. These are necessary but not sufficient conditions to achieve a successful project. Culture change is also needed, and that doesn’t flow from words on a page.

USDS playbook
The 13 plays from the U.S. Digital Services Playbook.

Moreover, about half of these one-liners relate to technology, which CIO’s data suggest isn’t the source of most failures. That said, technology design seems to have been a major issue with, according to Adam Becker on Medium:

Each page load on generates over 60 separate [sic] HTTP requests to the same host, downloading completely unminified and uncompressed assets for a grand total of 2.5mb transferred.


Reuters reported something similar:

Five outside technology experts interviewed by Reuters, however, say they believe flaws in system architecture, not traffic alone, contributed to the problems… [Creating a user account] prompts the computer to load an unusually large amount of files and software, overwhelming the browser, experts said.”

Nothing in the Playlist explicitly addresses the coordination needed with multiple contractors (reports of 55) although there is an allusion in No. 6: “Assign one leader and make that person accountable.”


On September 30, 2011, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) named CGI Federal as the lead contractor to design and develop the Federally-Facilitated Marketplace (pdf). CMS did so by using a contract for information technology (IT) services that had been awarded in 2007 (pdf).

In addition to CGI Federal, some of companies involved in the project included Accenture, Aquilent (Development Seed), Booz Allen Hamilton, Creative Computing Solutions, Deloitte LLP, eHealthInsurance, Equifax Work Solutions, Experian, IBM, McKinsey & Company, MITRE, PricewaterhouseCoopers, SAIC, Serco Quality Software Services, and UnitedHealth Group’s QSSI subsidiary Optum/QSSI. See a list of contractors from the July 2013 GAO report (pdf).

Two states also suffered

Both Vermont and Massachusetts contracted with CGI to build their sites, and both states began withholding payment last year.

The feds let their contract with CGI expire in January.

In June, Massachusetts extracted itself from its CGI contract. Earlier this month Vermont dropped its contract with CGI. The Vermont site remains unfinished although the state paid the Canadian firm $67 million. CGI owed Vermont $5.1 million in penalties for missed deadlines.

Apparently neither Vermont nor Massachusetts could call on a team of young software engineers to pitch in and patch.

Missing the core problem

We – the taxpayers – have paid CGI Federal $2.8 billion, according to And then there’s this:

The lead contractor on the dysfunctional Web site for the Affordable Care Act is filled with executives from a company that mishandled at least 20 other government IT projects, including a flawed effort to automate retirement benefits for millions of federal workers, documents and interviews show.
CGI Federal, the main Web site developer, entered the U.S. government market a decade ago when its parent company purchased American Management Systems… CGI … kept the core of employees … [who are now] CGI Federal’s current and past presidents, the company’s chief technology officer, its vice president for federal health care and its health IT leader, according to company and other records. More than 100 former AMS employees are now senior executives or consultants working for CGI in the Washington area.

Despite the ineptness exhibited in the project and the ineptness exhibited by its acquisition, we’re still signing over new contracts to CGI. We just won’t let contracts directly related to

Where’s the Playlist course correction about contracts?

Out of scope.

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By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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