woody zimmerman 118 2007Media of all sizes and political stripes have been all a-twitter in recent days about the “failure” of the Obamacare on-line system rollout, and what it means, politically speaking. All eyes are glued to the system. (As Doodles Weaver famously said, “It looks very funny with all those eyes glued to it…”)

A small number of commentators argue that the law’s provisions will cause major disruptions in the life and economy of the nation, once they are fully in force. But those predictions are generally buried beneath the frantic reporting on: the search for someone to blame for the on-line failure; the lack of integrated system-testing; bringing in the “A-Team” to get the system working; the new “date-certain” for finally putting everything right; yadda-yadda-yadda…

A visitor from Mars could easily conclude from all the hype that the ACA’s success will be measured only by the extent to which smoothly functioning on-line-access for the new insurance “exchanges” has been achieved. But this will not be so – except in the worshipful judgment of Obama acolytes. The on-line system is only the “crust,” not the pie. Ultimately, it might work perfectly, but the entire ACA could still fail if it attracts only hordes of sick people who can finally get insurance despite their pre-existing conditions. Universal acceptance by the public, plus correct fiscal operation of the entire federalized system, will be the true measure of success. This result is very unlikely, however.

One hears little about the content of the Affordable Care Act itself, except scattered anecdotes about how few people seem to be signing up via the on-line exchanges, or how much costlier insurance premiums will be for some people. To date, we have no official report on the count of enrollees or any definitive catalog of premium-costs under the new system. Accurate information of this type is still shrouded in mystery and remains unreleased by government. My guess is that this info will be hidden for some time – possibly indefinitely. It may take years for independent reporters to compile Freedom of Information requests into accurate reports. I believe the government will do its best to conceal this information as long as possible in order to get the ACA fully implemented before voters get wise to its ruinous truths.

This week an old friend – a fellow computer-systems pro – and I met to discuss the rollout of the ACA’s on-line system. He noted that contractors claim the requirements-definition phase of the project did not actually begin until after the 2012 election, in order to keep the law’s less attractive details from leaking out and affecting the election. This means the development effort began less than a year ago – not three years ago. Requirements definition and mapping to the system’s functionality is the essential first step in a systems project. It is very difficult and time-consuming. You cannot start building a system until you know what you are going to build. Suggesting otherwise is just ignorant talk by people who know nothing about this kind of work.

I had professional involvement in development efforts of far less complexity than the ACA’s on-line system. In these projects, the requirements phase alone took over a year to complete. If the Obamacare system’s entire developmental effort has occupied only a year, its requirements phase could not possibly have been thorough enough to produce a correctly functioning system. In other words, the development effort was essentially subverted for political reasons. Contractors who built various parts of the system have also reported that no integration testing was done before the system was rolled out for public access. This, alone, would have doomed the effort to failure.

In my opinion, what HHS systems contractors produced in that year’s time was what developers sometimes call a “rapid prototype” – a thrown-together system presenting some partial functionality for demonstration purposes, but not based on the disciplined mapping of well-defined requirements to system operations. Project-managers under the gun of a hard deadline are sometimes tempted to adopt a rapid-prototype as an early “build” of the desired system, but these short-cuts usually fail because of inadequate configuration management (i.e., careful control of developed computer code) and unsound requirements work. It is the systems-equivalent of building a house on an improperly laid foundation. Eventually – inevitably – the house collapses.

No intelligent system engineer that I ever knew would attempt to build a major system – or any system! – in these careless ways. He would expect the effort to fail, ruining his and his company’s reputations. A graduate degree in system development isn’t needed to see this. It’s just common sense. A complex machine with many interlocking parts is never designed and built in such a slapdash manner.

Why, then, was this highly visible, politically sensitive system built so sloppily? Mr. Obama’s high command – including HHS Secretary Sibelius – must have known that the whole country would be watching closely. Why didn’t they make every effort to do a bang-up job? Was it because they are simply incompetent, as various commentators and politicians have suggested? (“No” to that last question – I don’t think anyone in government is that incompetent or stupid.)

I believe the answer to Why is far simpler than one might think: the ACA’s on-line system was meant to fail. Instead of being the shining centerpiece of Obamacare, the system was set up to be the supreme diversion of all diversions. It would do the impossible – i.e., keep the attention of media, politicians and voters off the disastrous details of the new law, thus protecting it from complete repeal. The obvious way to accomplish this was to have the computerized system’s rollout be so bungled – so absurdly bad! – that the smoke and rubble from the wreckage would completely obscure the law’s interior. This would buy precious time.

Obviously, this objective has been met. Even seasoned pros like Rush Limbaugh are baying after the rollout fiasco in full cry. But the diversionary effort isn’t over. It will last far into 2014. Even Democrats are starting to defect – not from the law itself, but from the official starting date of January 1, 2014. Various delays are being called for. Soon – finally, reluctantly – Mr. Obama will agree to a delay. Perhaps he will revise the start to July 1; or later. The date won’t matter, because as it approaches, the system still won’t be ready. Another delay will be called for, and will be eventually granted. And so it will go.

Slowly, inexorably, 2014 will slide by. Completion of the on-line system will always remain tantalizingly out of reach. Congress will hold repeated hearings, “viewing with alarm.” The media will work itself into a frenzy. The president will stomp about the country, saying he’s “mad as hell” about the delays. But he will continue to grant them, blaming it all on Republicans whose opposition has “spoiled” the rollout of this system that the country so desperately needs.

Finally, the 2014 elections will be held. Democrats will breathe a sigh of relief. Obamacare will go fully operational, soon after. And millions of Americans will realize – too late! – the poison pills hidden in this catastrophic legislation. It will have been a masterpiece of diversion – perhaps the grandest in history. We’ll never get done paying for it.