Sunday, March 19, 2023

Case Study 17: The Disastrous Launch of

Case Study 17: The Disastrous Launch of

Barack Obama was inaugurated on January 20, 2009, after defeating his opponent John McCain by 365 electoral college votes to 175. One of Obama's primary campaign issues was fixing America's healthcare system by providing affordable options to the 43.8 million uninsured Americans. 

In 2010, the year Obama signed the Affordable Care Act (ACA), the United States spent 17.6% of its GDP on health care, nearly double the OECD average of 9.5%, with the next closest developed nation, the Netherlands, spending 12%.

The 44th president was successful in introducing the ACA; however, the launch of the website that would connect Americans to the marketplace,, was a failure. While the platform would eventually enroll an estimated 10 million uninsured Americans in 2014, the rollout was a complete disaster that exposed the challenges the United States government faces in implementing technology.

According to a 2008 report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), 48% of federal IT projects had to be restructured because of cost overages or changes in project goals. In addition, over half had to be restarted two or more times.

On the first day was launched, four million unique users visited the portal, but only six successfully registered. Over the next few days, the site experienced eight million visitors, but according to estimates, around 1% enrolled in a new healthcare plan. Even the users that did sign up experienced errors, including duplicates in enrollment applications submitted to insurers.

The trouble launching presents a seemingly reoccurring problem when the US government tech projects. Standish Group International Chairman Jim Johnson is on record praising the rollout based on the government's history of software failing by default. "Anyone who has written a line of code or built a system from the ground up cannot be surprised or even mildly concerned that did not work out of the gate. The real news would have been if it actually did work. The very fact that most of it did work at all is a success in itself."

However, there's far more to the failed launch of the federally facilitated marketplace (FFM). The agency responsible for the project, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), didn't follow many regulations in place to ensure transparency, proper oversight, and accountability. So was the project destined to fail from the start due to overwhelming layers of bureaucracy, or were the vendors tasked with developing the online marketplace to blame?

In this case study, we'll examine why failed to meet expectations and point out what CMS could have done differently to deliver a functioning FFM.

If you are an executive sponsor, steering committee member, or a non-executive board member and want to learn what you need to do so that your project does not land on my list with project failures? Then my (Non)-Executive Crash Course is what you are looking for.

If you want to know where you are standing with that large, multi-year, strategic project? Or you think one of your key projects is in trouble? Then a Project Review is what you are looking for.

If you just want to read more project failure case studies? Then have a look at the overview of all case studies I have written here.

Timeline of Events


On March 23, 2010, President Barack Obama signed ACA, also known as Obamacare, into law. The legislation was the most comprehensive reform of the US medical system in 50 years and is still in place today.

Under the ACA, US citizens were required to have health insurance or pay a monthly fee. The law also required the establishment of online marketplaces that would allow individuals to compare and select health insurance policies by January 1, 2014. States could set up their own marketplace or use the FFM.

Each marketplace created under the ACA was intended to provide a seamless, single point of access for individuals to enroll in qualified healthcare plans and access income-based financial subsidies created under the new law.

Users were required to visit, register, verify their identity, determine their eligibility for subsidies, and enroll in a plan. The process appears straightforward; President Obama even touted the marketplace weeks before its launch by saying, "Now, this is real simple. It's a website where you can compare and purchase affordable health insurance plans, side by side, the same way you shop for a plane ticket on kayak… the same way you shop for a TV on Amazon."

However, building an identity verification platform on such a large scale alone is exceptionally challenging. The marketplace also required integration from databases in other government agencies. Once the user successfully was verified as an American citizen, income was determined, and they were filtered through state and federal government programs like Medicaid or the State Children's Health Insurance Program, then they would be matched with private health insurance plans.

The process was not simple and was far more complex than online shopping because it required integration with identification verification software, other government databases, and health insurance providers.

From day one, the project was underestimated. In addition, the requirements in the ACA that all citizens must enroll by January 1, 2014 or would be required to pay a fine created a hard deadline with economic and political consequences.

March 2010 - September 2011

Over a year passed between the ACA becoming a law and the CMS signing contracts with vendors who would build the FFM. During this period, problems directly affecting the launch were already beginning.

While the CMS was in charge of oversight of the project and hiring contractors, leadership was fractured across multiple government agencies. The project was headed by the CMS's Deputy CIO, Henry Chao, but the committee also included:

Todd Park – White House CTO

Jeanne Lambrew – Executive Office of Health Reform

Kathleen Sebelius and Bryan Sivak – Department of Health and Human Services

Members of the committee outside of the CMS executed a great deal of power and influence over the project; however, no one at the various agencies had visibility of the critical milestones that each group needed to reach to complete the project successfully.

The CMS awarded 60 contracts to 33 different vendors. The largest was granted to Conseillers en Gestion et Informatique (CGI), a Montreal-based IT company that employed more than 70,000 people. CGI grew to be worth more than $11 billion by 2013 by acquiring other companies, some of which handled US government contracts such as the 2004 purchase of American management Systems and the 2010 purchase of Stanley.

CGI’s contract consisted of developing the FFM and was valued at over $90 million. CGI was responsible for the most significant, user-facing aspect of the project but was not officially assigned a lead integrator role. CMS would later report they perceived CGI to be the project's lead integrator but didn't have written documentation outlining the agreement.

Representatives from CGI stated they did not have the same understanding at this point of the project.

US federal agencies are required to perform a procurement framework when awarding private companies with government contracts outlined by the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR). However, CMS failed to satisfy specific aspects of FAR, including:

> Preparing a written procurement strategy documenting the factors, assumptions, risks, and tradeoffs that would guide project decisions.

> Conduct thorough past performance reviews of potential contractors.

> Only used the federal government's contractor database (PPIRS) when evaluating bids on four of the six key contracts.

CMS leadership later claimed they were unaware that a procurement strategy was required. 

December 2011 – Summer 2013

Development of the project began in December 2011 consisting of four major components:

> Front-end website for the FFM (the marketplace)

Back-end data services hub

Enterprise identity management sub-system

Hosting infrastructure

CGI was responsible for the front-end website. The UI was developed with standard web tools, including Bootstrap, CSS, jQuery, Jekyll,, and Ruby; however, it would later be revealed that common optimization features to aggregate and minify CSS and JS files were not used.

The back-end data services hub was developed by CGI and Quality Software Services, Inc (QSSI) using Java, JBoss, and the NoSQL MarkLogic database. The hub was responsible for orchestrating data and services from multiple external sources such as agent brokers, insurers, CMS, DHS, Experian, the IRS, state insurance exchanges, and the US Social Security Administration (SSA). While the integration was incredibly complex, utilizing data from multiple sources, the developers chose machine-generated middleware objects to save time.

Enterprise Identity Management (EIDM) was handled by QSSI but depended on the back-end to retrieve data from multiple sources. Before the launch, the EIDM was tested with an expected load of only 2,000 concurrent users.

The final major system component was the hardware infrastructure hosting of the website, FFM, data services hub, and EIDM. Akamai's CDN hosted's UI. The original back-end (it would be replaced after the failed launch) consisted of 48 VMWare virtual machine nodes running Red Hat Enterprise Linux and hosted on twelve physical servers in a Terremark data center. Some of the servers ran vSphere v4.1, with others running v5.1; the network was also running at 1 Gb/sec, far below its capacity of 4 Gb/sec.

Failures on all critical components of the project exemplify that CMS didn't have the personnel or experience to handle an IT project of this magnitude.

Late 2013

With only a couple of months left before the scheduled launch, CMS raised its concerns about CGI's performance but didn't take steps to hold the contractor accountable. In September 2013, CMS moved into CGI's offices for on-site support.

CMS delayed governance reviews that would have exposed the issues and did not receive the required approvals to move forward. However, they decided to continue with an on-schedule launch with all the platform's features, available to every American citizen needing affordable healthcare. The estimated project cost at this point was $500 million.

On October 1, 2013, the website was online. Most visitors experienced crashes, delays, errors, and slow performance throughout the week. By the weekend, the decision was made to take the site down because it was practically unusable.

Later in the month, HHS announced the following changes to the project:

Project management was centralized and led by Jeffrey Zients, former OMB director who had a reputation within the Whitehouse for solving tough problems and managing teams.

Todd Park, White House CTO, reorganized the technology leadership team, demoted some underperforming CMS employees and 3rd party contractors, and recruited top talent from Silicon Valley for a government sabbatical to save the site.

A Tiger team was formed with the narrow mandate of getting the FFM working properly.

The new team scrummed daily, triaged existential risks, and prioritized defects based on urgency. Over the next six weeks, the Tiger team resolved 400 system defects, increased system concurrency to 25,000 users, and improved the site's responsiveness to one second. The site went back online, and enrollment jumped from 26,000 in October to 975,000 in December.  

By Christmas, most problems had been fixed, but the site was still not fully operational.


CGI was replaced by Accenture as the lead contractor and awarded a $90 billion contract to replace the FFM.

The individual mandate requirement was pushed back to March 31, 2014, giving uninsured Americans more time to sign up without being penalized.  

In July, the GOA released a detailed report outlining the critical failures of the project.

According to the GOA's findings, FFM obligations increased from $56 million to more than $209 million. Similarly, data hub obligations increased from $30 million to nearly $85 million from September 2011 to February 2014. The study recommended that "CMS take immediate actions to assess increasing contract costs and ensure that acquisition strategies are completed, and oversight tools are used as required, among other actions. CMS concurred with four recommendations and partially concurred with one. "

In August, the Office of Inspector General released a report finding that the total cost of the website had reached $1.7 billion. A month later, Bloomberg News reported the cost exceeded $2 billion.

By November, open enrollment on began for 2015.

What Went Wrong?

A multitude of issues caused the failed launch of the website. While it is a clear example of the federal government's continuous struggle to implement functioning, secure software, the problems go beyond Washington's bureaucracy. Nevertheless, much can be learned about releasing digital solutions and managing large-scale projects with many moving parts in general.


The project started with overconfidence and unrealistic expectations set by the White House. Obama's campaign staff had a reputation for being technologically savvy because they pioneered using social media and data mining in the 2008 presidential election. However, running a social media campaign and releasing a single point of contact that pulls from multiple government agencies and insurance companies aren't comparable.

Underestimated Scale of the Project

Due to overconfidence and unrealistic expectations, the project scale was drastically underestimated, resulting in mismanagement in organizational structure, leadership, accountability, and transparency.

As the deadline approached, the project scope grew, while CMS identified 45 critical and 324 severe code defects across FFM modules.


Launching large-scale software projects are extremely challenging but adding a hostile political climate made the rollout even more difficult. Not only did CMS not have the personnel or experience to handle an FFM, but they also experienced pressure and influence from outside the agency. One of the most significant examples came in August of 2013, the White House and executive Office of Health Reform insisted on requiring site user registration before shopping for insurance so that concrete user numbers could be shown as proof of the system's success.

Members of the project committee that weren't from the CMS exhibited a great deal of influence over critical decision-making while not having access to accurate progress reports. In addition, the 2012 presidential elections likely impacted delays. Polarizing decisions, such as final rules on private insurance premiums, coverage availability, risk pools, and catastrophic plans, were put off till after the election cycle. These rules had to be translated into software and tested before a successful rollout was possible.

Lack of technology understanding and experience at CMS

The CMS was not prepared to handle a technology project at this scale. Other government agencies, such as the DOD and NASA, had decades of experience navigating the institutional challenges required to develop, deliver, and operate reliable IT systems.

Throughout procurement, development, and launch, CMS made it clear that its personnel didn't understand the requirements necessary to oversee a large-scale technology project, let alone one that had additional regulatory hurdles set by government agencies.

Poor Project Management

The project committee was spread across various government agencies, including the CMS, the White House, the Office of Health Reform, and the Department of Health and Human Services. As a result, there wasn't an organizational structure standard on even small-scale projects. Fractured leadership contributed to the lack of project management, but CMS was primarily responsible. While the problem could have been lessened if CMS had followed the guidelines from FAR, the operators from the agency pleaded ignorance in the GAO report, strengthening the case that CMS didn't have personnel suitable for the project.  

Failed to Postpone Launch

All the problems accumulated, resulting in a failed launch. Typically, the release is delayed when a website or software isn't ready. The engineers perform more testing, fix the problems, and launch at a later time. was a unique project with consequences transcending a poor user experience. The time constraints pressured CMS to go forward with the launch rather than being transparent and communicating that the infrastructure couldn't handle millions of users.

Leading up to the launch, CMS was given more business rules and a broader scope. While they had no control over the pressure coming from the Whitehouse, the agency failed to be upfront, and instead of delaying the launch or releasing in stages, they scrambled to save the project.

How CMS Could Have Done Things Differently

CMS was in charge of the project, but the blame falls on the Obama administration. Appointing CMS to lead the project was the first mistake made in a number of shortcomings that led to billions of wasted tax dollars and US citizens being delayed health care coverage.

While appointing a different agency, one that had experience delivering technology projects, was the first significant error, analyzing the oversights made by CMS leading up to the launch is the most practical way to assess what could have been done differently.  


An understanding of the scale of would have dramatically influenced CMS to prepare better and implement project management best practices. One way the leadership at CMS could have prevented a launch failure was to realize they couldn't handle heading the project. Assigning lead manager and integrator roles to an outside firm or the lead vendor would have been more sensible.


Many institutional challenges out of the hands of CMS contributed to the failed launch of However, the agency had complete control over the procurement of government contractors. Simply following the Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) procurement framework could have prevented many organizational problems that led to the failure.

Had CMS adhered to standard government agency procurement guidelines, issues like the confusion around who was lead integrator wouldn't have existed. Furthermore, decisions like depending on data provided by Experian, a data source that neither the government nor the other contractors could do any data quality work on, would have likely been questioned if not denied when submitted for approval.

Adopt Iterative Software Development Framework

The project would have benefited if an iterative system development philosophy and a lean software manufacturing process such as Scrum or Kanban were adopted. Project managers could have organized sprints driven by the top priorities, including the complete end-to-end testing of the technology solution. An Iterative Development Framework would have increased visibility across multiple contractors and federal agencies, improved development quality, and reduced time to market.

Strong Leadership

Leadership was a fundamental problem that affected every aspect of the launch. Distribution of authority, management, and accountability created an environment where a functioning FFM was impossible to deliver on time. The project steering committee should have elected one project executive to make final decisions, hold contractors accountable, and communicate with other government agencies.

See "Consensus Is the Absence of Leadership" for  for more insights on this topic.

Set and Guard Technical Standards

A rushed, unqualified, and fractured committee led to the development of poor technology. As a result, CGI and other contractors experience zero to very little oversight allowing for an unfinished UI, partially operating back-end, and unstable hosting. 

The developers from CGI delivered an unpolished UI with excessive typos, a bloated directory, sloppy code, and even Lorem Ipsum placeholder text on the web pages. In addition, best practices were not followed or ignored regarding file compression, causing the website to take eight seconds to load and 71 seconds for user account registration pages with client-side loading, according to a report by AppDynamics. 

A basic small business website delivered at this standard would be unacceptable, let alone the focal point of one of the most transformative pieces of legislation in recent US history.

CGI should have been held to higher standards and required to deliver a polished, functioning UI.

While the front end was a disaster, fixing HTML, CSS, and JS and optimizing webpages can be done overnight.'s back-end was a different story requiring systemic changes to function. More oversight was needed on the database and server-side development, but it could have only gone smoothly with drastic changes to leadership and organizational structure.

Improve Security requires an abundance of personal data to be submitted and collected. While security wasn't the primary failure of the project, the servers were hacked in July 2014. The malware was uploaded into the system but failed to communicate to any external IP addresses. In addition, multiple security defects were found, including the insecure transmission of personal data, unvalidated password resets, error stack traces revealing internal components, and violations of user data privacy.

Comprehensive security audits must be conducted before the launch rather than on the fly after a site is live.

Implement Testing and Bug Fixing Protocols

Adequate testing could have prevented many of the FFM's problems; however, CMS was well aware of the issues but failed to communicate with HHS and other government agencies. Still, testing protocols and a strategy to manage and fix bugs are necessary for an IT project of this scale.

CMS needed to coordinate unit and component testing by 3rd parties much sooner than a couple of weeks before launch. Testing conducted by teams outside of specific features of the project ensures there aren't biases and that the project works on various devices, browsers, and servers.

Another issue CMS encountered was communication with states implementing their own healthcare marketplaces. The date was pushed from November 2012 to December 2012, and some were confirmed as late as February 2013. Uncertainty of the traffic volume should have led to overpreparation and expanded capacity testing of concurrent users. Instead, a load of only 2,000 simultaneous users has been tested rather than the tens of thousands they should have expected.  

Phased or Staged Rollout

One way the project steering committee could have responded to the issues without pushing back the launch was to release the project in phases or stages. Below are multiple options the committee could have taken instead of the Big Bang launch approach:

> Released certain features that were ready or could have been prepared when prioritized before October 1, 2013.

> Roll out a beta version of the platform to a small number of applicants (by region, government employees, sample group, etc.) months before the deadline.

> Release the platform in strategic phases leading up to the deadline, e.g., encourage applicants to register early in August, request eligibility in September, and shop for plans in October.

> Limit the scope of the project months before the launch and focus on minimal requirements rather than continue expanding leading up to the hard deadline.

See "How Your Rollout in Waves Can End in a Tsunami" for more insights on this topic.

Face Reality

The problems facing the launch were apparent, and there's evidence in the GAO report that suggests CMS was well aware of the issues. In addition, a McKinsey report was released just a few months before the scheduled rollout in April 2013. The report highlighted the initiative's complexity and identified more than a dozen critical risks spanning the marketplace technology and project governance. 

The problems we've covered were clearly outlined in the report, as well as multiple definitions of success and concerns with a Big Bang launch approach. The McKinsey report also suggested several actionable methods to mitigate the risks. Still, the project steering committee did not act upon the McKinsey report's findings and recommendations before the system launch.

Whether CMS caved under the pressure of the deadline, the political consequences, or was just incompetent enough to expect a positive outcome is unclear. All the warning signs pointed to an unsuccessful launch and should have been taken seriously, resulting in making the necessary adjustments.

See "It Is Time to Face Your Project's Reality" for more insights on this topic.

Closing Thoughts

The project exemplifies just about everything that can go wrong with software integration between the federal government and the private sector. The project's failures are incredibly complicated due to the influence of multiple government agencies and a hostile political climate. When one problem is identified, more come to the surface with increasingly challenging solutions.

But was the project doomed to fail just because of the layers of government bureaucracy? I don't believe so.

Had the committee executed strong leadership with personnel who had experience working on institutional software, the project could have gone much differently. The remarkable aspect of is how fast it was turned around, given the state of the project after the launch. Once the Whitehouse was fully aware of the problems and competent leaders were put in place, the site was made functional in a few weeks and essentially operational in December 2013.

In a nutshell: Experienced leadership leads to realistic expectations, a healthy organizational structure, and strong communication. Never underestimate the importance of the person or group that is in charge.

If you are an executive sponsor, steering committee member, or a non-executive board member and want to learn what you need to do so that your project does not land on my list with project failures? Then my (Non)-Executive Crash Course is what you are looking for.

If you want to know where you are standing with that large, multi-year, strategic project? Or you think one of your key projects is in trouble? Then a Project Review is what you are looking for.

If you just want to read more project failure case studies? Then have a look at the overview of all case studies I have written here.






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