5 Lessons IT Project Managers Can Learn From Obamacare

October 3, 2013 8 Comments »
5 Lessons IT Project Managers Can Learn From Obamacare

Like it or hate it, the train—or train wreck, depending on your view—known as Obamacare is chugging down the track toward full implementation. The numerous technical problems in the October 1 opening of the new health-insurance exchanges are an opportunity for IT managers and professionals to take stock of their own approaches to projects and to evaluate how they can improve. Here are five lessons that Obamacare, officially titled the Affordable Care Act (ACA), teaches IT.

1. Your project stands a good chance of going over budget or past schedule.  According to a Forrester study commissioned by IBM, 25% of IT projects in the U.S. are currently over budget (compared with 23% worldwide), and 34% are behind schedule (23% worldwide). In other words, missing time and cost targets is a major problem for the industry. In the case of Obamacare, the rollout of the insurance exchanges was largely on time—but the timeliness was at the cost of unpreparedness, as the numerous problems demonstrated. Whether the project will stay within budget remains to be seen, but given that government debt continues to balloon and that the Obamacare project is huge, chances are the overruns will start soon.

IT projects—whether private or government—often have a tough time getting approval, and underestimating the numbers can help at first. But once it is underway, those underestimates can return to haunt the project. One way to avoid the hassle is to be honest and aim for more room than you think you will need. Doing so can decrease the chances of receiving approval, but it also gives you a better chance of delivering results on time and within allotted means. Obamacare’s strict rollout date meant a scramble—and subsequent problems—when more leeway could have smoothed the launch.

2. If you don’t know what you want, you won’t get it. The Obamacare legislation is some 900 pages long and is accompanied by about 10,000 pages of regulations by one count. One can quibble over the exact number, but the point is that if you’re unable to clearly and cleanly express what you’re looking for in a project, you’re headed for trouble. The health-insurance exchanges are already notorious for delays and difficulties that have prevented users from enrolling or, in the case of the federal exchange, even establishing an account. Even the Oregon exchange, which took a “play-it-safe, soft-launch approach” according to InformationWeek, had significant technical difficulties at its opening.

The problem for IT project managers isn’t necessarily in the overall mission statement, however. Well before Obamacare’s arrival, health-insurance exchanges like eHealthInsurance.com already gave consumers a means of comparing products—and they continue to do so. But for the government-run exchanges, the added complexity of the regulations surrounding the legislation—to say nothing about the myriad pages of tax rules and regulations—adds even more complexity. Whether a project of this scope can even be articulated in plain language is debatable. Thus, the fine print is what can sink a project. If managers cannot comprehend the interworking of the different pieces of the project, a smooth rollout is unlikely.

3. Your project’s success ultimately depends on how you serve your customers. If you’ve ever been to a DMV, you probably recognize the importance of customer service. Even a mistake or two isn’t a huge deal if you treat customers with respect for their time and their choice to come to you to do business. Obamacare provides a similar warning. President Barack Obama compared the rollout of his signature health legislation to Apple’s iOS 7; this comparison is less than apt for several reasons, but IT professionals can still learn something.

Obamacare

Unlike Obamacare, you can’t force customers to use your products. Thanks to the Supreme Court decision essentially granting Congress the power to tax anyone for activity (or inactivity) that legislators dislike, the federal government has a financial hammer that effectively removes all limits to its authority. Your organization, on the other hand, still must woo potential customers. A rollout such as what has taken place thus far with Obamacare could easily put your business on the fast track to bankruptcy.

No, your project probably won’t launch in perfect condition, and some bugs will emerge over time as users torture-test your results. According to The Hill, “Obama and administration officials have warned repeatedly that some implementation snafus are inevitable as the exchanges launch”; if you make such assurances before releasing your product or rolling out your new system, you’re likely to get even more complaints (as the government is seeing) than if you had kept silent. If you know for sure that you’re going to run into problems, you might consider holding off; sometimes missing the schedule is better than being on time with lousy results.

4. The more valuable data you pack into one place, the bigger a target you’ll become. When you combine tax data, health information and other personal details in a single place, you create a high-value target for hackers, identity thieves and other scoundrels. Government Executive notes that “The Federal Data Services Hub…is designed to link databases at HHS and IRS with the Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs departments, the Social Security Administration, the Office of Personnel Management and the Peace Corps.” And despite its enormous budget (some $3.5 trillion per annum), federal agencies and other associated organizations are still regularly hacked to gain access to private information.

Thanks to regulatory compliance concerns in areas like medical and financial information, many IT project managers are already keenly aware of the need to maintain security when dealing with sensitive data. The Obamacare rollout reemphasizes this need regardless of regulations: your customers (whether internal or external) count on your security measures to protect them. Advertising that you have a treasure trove of valuable information isn’t necessarily wise, but either way, security should always be a top consideration.

5. Excuses make the problems worse. IT projects go over budget and past schedule for a reason: they are complex, and the more difficult the problem they seek to solve, the tougher it will be to implement a solution that works without serious bugs. That being said, don’t make excuses—particularly before rollout—as some officials did regarding Obamacare. Everyone knows that no product is perfect, but that shouldn’t stop you from striving for one anyway. And when the inevitable issue arises, deal with your customers in the same way you would want to be dealt with were your positions reversed. If you predict your own failure, you’ll probably find a way to make it happen. So, recognize what you can learn from the lessons above, but don’t use them as an excuse for poor performance.

Conclusions

Whether Obamacare (particularly, the insurance exchanges) succeeds or fails, IT project managers can learn from its recent rollout. Perhaps most importantly from the standpoint of customer relations, internal morale and the quest for success, the difficulties that these lessons illustrate should serve as warnings—or even challenges—not excuses.

Images courtesy of Healthcare.gov

About Jeff Clark

Jeff Clark is editor for the Data Center Journal. He holds a bachelor’s degree in physics from the University of Richmond, as well as master’s and doctorate degrees in electrical engineering from Virginia Tech. An author and aspiring renaissance man, his interests range from quantum mechanics and processor technology to drawing and philosophy.

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