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White House taps Zients, fellows for tech help

Oct. 22, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
By KELLY KENNEDY   |   Comments
Acting OMB Director Jeffrey Zients Testifies On Pr
Former Office of Management and Budget director Jeffrey Zients will help lead a project to solve the problems that persist in the new federal health insurance exchange. (T.J. Kirkpatrick / Getty Images)


WASHINGTON — The Obama administration said Tuesday it will call in a group of scholars known for their tech savvy and familiarity with government programs to help solve the problems that persist in the new federal health insurance exchange.

Former Office of Management and Budget director Jeffrey Zients will help lead the project.

Contractors and experts from the insurance industry, “veteran of top Silicon Valley” companies and others are coming to help fix problems with the site, Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said in an announcement. USA Today reported Tuesday that those companies include telecommunications giant Verizon.

“These reinforcements include a handful of Presidential Innovation Fellows,” Sebelius said. “This new infusion of talent will bring a powerful array of subject matter expertise and skills, including extensive experience scaling major IT systems.”

The extra resources, Sebelius said, will help determine the problem. HHS will also work with states whose exchanges have been working well.

Aneesh Chopra, the Obama administration’s former chief technology officer and now a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, told USA Today the fellows, all of whom have outside technology experience, have also been trained in how the government works.

The fellows have experience working everywhere from Google to renewable energy companies to organizations they created themselves to confront some of the world’s biggest problems, such as climate change. The program was launched in August 2012.

Sebelius said they would also be working with their original contractor, CGI.

“In addition to our efforts to ramp up capacity and expertise with the country’s leading innovators and problem solvers, we have secured additional staff and commitments from our contractors, including CGI, the lead firm responsible for the federally facilitated marketplace technology,” she said. “They are providing and directing the additional resources needed for this project within the provisions of their existing contract.”

Most of the problems with are on the back end and can be fixed, said Charles Phillips, CEO of enterprise software company Infor and former member of Obama’s Economic Recovery Advisory Board.

“These are non-trivial problems, and it’s exacerbated with a big-bang rollout,” Phillips said, emphasizing that the government needed more time to test the system. “But the one thing is now they know what the problems are.”

Americans trying to access the site tested it for the government, he said, “so they can go back and address each problem one by one.”

HHS should have brought more people in to look at the computer code for the website earlier, Phillips said. Now, he said, the government has plenty of help from companies and many others, including Infor, have volunteered to help, he said.

Problems were to be expected, Phillips said. A study of 3,500 companies with large Web launches found only a 6 percent success rate for finishing on-time and within budget, he said.

“Having seen these cases for many, many years, once you know what the problems are, they’re fixable,” he said. “In this case, I think they’re fixable.”

Kennedy writes for USA Today.

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