Obamacare: The Biggest Mishap in PM of 2013?

Projects rarely make news, but when they do, it is almost always because of their failures.  Obamacare was the biggest failure in Project Management during 2013.  It dominated the headlines and made many powerful people really sweat.  The question is really why Obamacare rollout was a complete disaster?  I am using this article from the Huffington Post to dive into the failings of Obamacare.


1. Obamacare’s rollout was unsuccessful because the timeline was developed by senior management that didn’t truly understand the scope of the work.

How many times has this happened to one of you?  You are given a project that you have deep understanding of, but you have little say in what the timeline will be.    Had a better timeline been developed, the rollout of Obamacare may be looked at completely different now.


2. #1 directly leads to the 2nd point.  Contracts were to contractors that gave the best price and timeline, whether or not it was realistic.

Obamacare was a classic example of over promising and under delivering.  Contractors were busy whispering sweet nothings into the Obamacare administrators’ ears, knowing that what they were selling was not possible.  They were doing what was necessary to win the contract.  How can we prevent this in our own careers?


3. The scope was ever-changing making it impossible to predict when a successful rollout could happen.

Scope creep is a problem that always seems to show up in projects and Obamacare was no different.  When the scope changed, the administrators had a choice whether or not to have a contract bidding war between contractors or to give the current contractors the work and simply agree to a scope change.  It was cheaper and faster (remember we are on a timeline here!) to agree to a scope change with the current contractors.


At rollout Obamacare was a complete failure.  The President even admitted this.  It offers many examples of what NOT to do when running a massive project.  I think the two main takeaways that I see are:

1. Communication between all layers of the organization is vital.  Senior management must communicate with those in the field to develop the project.  Senior managers do not know everything.

2. Having contractors that are trustworthy and won’t just tell you what you want to hear can lead to more successful project launches (even if they are a bit more expensive).

What do you think could have been done better?

3 thoughts on “Obamacare: The Biggest Mishap in PM of 2013?

  1. Yes, this was a huge PM disaster and I agree with your takeaways. Adding on to your point about communication, a steering committee for the rollout could have enabled better communciation. No one knew the problems were as bad as they turned out to be, and a formal steering committee engaged in the effort could have made this less of a problem. The committee also would have created a deeped level of involvement from senior leaders and the ability to know that things were not going as well as the reports suggest.

  2. I agree with your comments about the trustworthiness of the contractors probably played the most pivotal roll in Obamacare’s initial failure. Many unnecessary complications were created through by concessions made to appease political opponents such as allowing a state to opt out and to create its own site. Another classmate posted on the subject of project management and politics, warning to “Avoid taking sides by falling into a power block” when in fact such actions may lower costs, expedite schedules, and increase chances of success. With the Supreme Court upholding the constitutionality of Obamacare, those in charge could have leveraged the decision to simplify the implementation process in order to get a working product by the launch deadline, but they did not revisit or revise the plan. Perhaps they thought they were too big to fail?

  3. One thing that the contractors could have done was plan better on the testing. Beta releases, incremental releases, and/or pilot launches of the website could have been suggested and baked into the plan well before the go-live date . Instead, the website was launched with inadequate testing, leading to the crash that we saw. This is where an agile approach to Project management scores. Frequent feedback to the client, short release cycles, better testing and reduced scope creep due to appropriate expectations set with the client all make agile projects succeed more often.

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