Picture Captain Kirk in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. Watch him raise his head to the heavens and open his mouth in an agony-stricken cry. Spock is gone. Kirk's heart is broken. He shakes his fist into the raging night and opens his mouth to let loose a warrior cry. Only today, instead of Kahn, he has something else to say.
OK, maybe in this picture Captain Kirk is President Obama, and perhaps Obama's signature domestic policy has fallen to pieces on the heels of the Healthcare.gov disaster. The anguish is the same, even if the face is different.
When it comes to the Affordable Care Act's signature website, user experiences have been nightmarish, riddled with errors and stalled loading screens. Insurance companies have reported receiving inaccurate data. Even supporters of the policies behind Obamacare have been forced to admit the launch of Healthcare.gov is an unmitigated failure. In fact, the site itself has made it harder for people to see the potential good that the changes to our health care system might render. Policy debates are moot. Obamacare is a failure.
It doesn't need to stay that way. Obamacare can be fixed, as long as the website itself is repaired. But that will take some time and commitment from the administration.
It's hard to fathom how a website launch could go so wrong, unless you know how difficult it is to develop effective website technology. Trust me. We've all seen good releases go bad. Remember when Apple's navigation app sent people down nonexistent roads and into lakes? Remember Apple's public humiliation?
After spending over seven years testing software for a local technology company, I sometimes feel like I've seen it all. Good launches, bad launches, launches that can still be saved. As such, allow me to paint you a picture of a basic web-based software release.
The software in question is a data-consuming application. Pages must securely collect sensitive data — financial and personal — and that data must be provided to insurance companies in an accurate, readable fashion. Moreover, the software will be used by people across the country with varying levels of technical know-how and, more importantly, computer systems of varying age. An elderly grandmother in the Midwest may still be using the computer she bought 10 years ago, while a tech-savvy college kid might fill out the web forms on the latest tablet available. Or vice versa. You just never know.
To make sure our grandmothers and college kids can both use the software, here's a few of the operating systems on which the software needs to run: Windows, Mac, Linux, iOS, and Android. Each system has different versions still in use: Windows Vista, Windows 8, and Mac OS8, OS9, and OSX. And the list continues to grow.
Then there are browsers: Internet Explorer, Firefox, Chrome, Safari, and Opera. Healthcare.gov's software needs to work on all of those. But which versions, you ask? Only the most recent? There's no way to guarantee consumers of the software will be on the latest and greatest version of the browsers, and each brower has very particular ways that it renders forms.
A project whose scope seems fairly limited — collect data, provide data — balloons quickly in the face of these environmental requirements. Teams can be overwhelmed by testing scope, and if a project has strict deadlines, testing certain browsers and operating systems can be the first test paths thrown out the window. The results can be disastrous.
But even the worst releases have the potential to be turned around. The Obamacare site can be fixed.
For every good release that's gone wrong, customers must be reassured. They must be aware of the efforts going into reshaping the system. The Obama administration must become transparent, letting the public know exactly what's going into fixing Healthcare.gov. The people in charge must understand the big picture and be able to report to the public the exact status of the website. Defects should be counted and triaged. There should be public updates on progress as well as roadblocks. For Kathleen Sebelius to stand before Congress and admit to not knowing the number of outstanding defects within the system is inexcusable. You can't fix what you don't know is broken.
The administration has done a good job so far at admitting fault. That's all well and good, but it only goes so far. But Sebelius and her team haven't done a good job of telling the public what they're doing to fix the issues. They haven't done a good job of letting us know what's already resolved and what remains broken. Until they begin sharing this data, consumers can't be confident that any given page will work.
Healthcare.gov can be saved. This blight on the Obama administration can be turned around. Software is fickle, but it can be whipped back into shape, as long as the talking heads get a lot more transparent. Then, and only then, will the true implications of the Affordable Care Act be seen, and then the policy debates can reconvene. But until that day, Obamacare is dead in the water.