Yesterday Colabria Action Research offered a few principles concerning the failure of the PPACA (ObamaCare) application portfolio. The purpose was to refract and anneal decades of large IT system action/research and share. To the extent possible, and as respected information systems scientists, we leave the politics to pundits and politicians. 

Colabria George Santayana

“Those who cannot remember the past  are condemned to repeat it.” –George Santayana

PPACA Redux offers some examples of where the PPACA is headed. All of these fiascos, all, suffered like the PPACA, from a dubious claim of ‘lack of resources.

Who believes the PPACA Website, at, cha-ching, $400M, suffered a resource problem? C’mon. Besides, who spends $400M on a Website? (Besides an out-of-control government.)

Only until the pressing lack of resources problem was ‘solved,’ once and for all, and they received substantial new rounds of ‘resources,’ ($$$) did these projects finally collapse completely, determined to be comprehensive failures. Expect the same for the PPACA.

These fiascos described below happen in large, always centralized government and institutional IT projects like PPACA. Why? Because bureaucracies have no consequences for failure.

Imagine, for a second, if a big construction firm built a new $400M office tower, and, one day it simply falls over, totally collapses. It would probably mean severe consequences or even the end of the firm.

Thing is, government IT projects have no accountability. The apparatchiks can order-up another round of much-needed ‘resources’ like a pizza. That’s why they are always challenged and fail so often. Here are some apropos examples retrieved from the Web.


Canada’s gun registration system


In June 1997, Electronic Data Systems and U.K.-based SHL Systemhouse started work on a Canadian national firearm registration system. The original plan was for a modest IT project that would cost taxpayers only $2 million — $119 million for implementation, offset by $117 million in licensing fees.

But then politics got in the way. Pressure from the gun lobby and other interest groups resulted in more than 1,000 change orders in just the first two years. The changes involved having to interface with the computer systems of more than 50 agencies, and since that integration wasn’t part of the original contract, the government had to pay for all the extra work. By 2001, the costs had ballooned to $688 million, including $300 million for support.

But that wasn’t the worst part. By 2001, the annual maintenance costs alone were running $75 million a year. A 2002 audit estimated that the program would wind up costing more than $1 billion by 2004 while generating revenue of only $140 million, giving rise to its nickname: “the billion-dollar boondoggle.”


Census Bureau’s handheld units

Back in 2006, the U.S. Census Bureau revealed an IT plan to use 500,000 handheld devices — purchased from Harris Corp. under a $600 million contract — to help automate the 2010 census. By 2008 the cost has more than doubled.

During a rehearsal for the census conducted in the fall of 2007, according to the GAO, field staff found that the handheld devices froze or failed to retrieve mapping coordinates. Furthermore, multiple devices had the same identification number, which meant they would overwrite one another’s data.

After the rehearsal, a representative of Mitre Corp., which advises the bureau on IT matters, brought notes to a meeting with the bureau’s representative that read, “It is not clear that the system will meet Census’ operational needs and quality goals. The final cost is unpredictable. Immediate, significant changes are required to rescue the program. However, the risks are so large considering the available time that we recommend immediate development of contingency plans to revert to paper operations.

In 2010 the program for using handheld computers to collect information and address canvassing “experienced substantial schedule delays and cost increases,” according to the report, so much so that it was abandoned in favor of the traditional paper questionnaires.

Okay, just one two more…


DMV projects — California and Washington

Two Western states spent the 1990s attempting to computerize their departments of motor vehicles, only to abandon the projects after spending millions of dollars. First was California, which in 1987 embarked on a five-year, $27 million plan to develop a system for keeping track of the state’s 31 million drivers’ licenses and 38 million vehicle registrations. But the state solicited a bid from just one company and awarded the contract to Tandem Computers. With Tandem supplying the software, the state was locked into buying Tandem hardware as well, and in 1990, it purchased six computers at a cost of $11.9 million.

That same year, however, tests showed that the new system was slower than the one it was designed to replace. The state forged ahead, but in 1994, it was finally forced to abandon what the San Francisco Chronicle described as “an unworkable system that could not be fixed without the expenditure of millions more.” In that May 1994 article, the Chronicle described it as a “failed $44 million computer project.” In an August article, it was described as a $49 million project, suggesting that the project continued to cost money even after it was shut down. A state audit later concluded that the DMV had “violated numerous contracting laws and regulations.”

Meanwhile, the state of Washington was going through its own nightmare with its License Application Mitigation Project (LAMP). Begun in 1990, LAMP was supposed to cost $16 million over five years and automate the state’s vehicle registration and license renewal processes. By 1992, the projected cost had grown to $41.8 million; a year later, $51 million; by 1997, $67.5 million. Finally, it became apparent that not only was the cost of installing the system out of control, but it would also cost six times as much to run every year as the system it was replacing. Result: plug pulled, with $40 million spent for nothing.


Sadly, these government IT failure vignettes are legion and could go on forever… Is the PPACA fiasco a teachable moment?

Colabria Action Research

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