Crazy dichotomy: NSA and HeathCare.gov?

A lot of bloggers in the UX world have been making hay with the HealthCare.gov fiasco. Clearly the importance of good UXD has been elevated to the highest levels when you see the President of the United States apologizing for the poor user experience of a website. Who could have imagined something like that ten years ago?

A blog that I read the other day — one of many on this topic now circulating in the UX community — pointed out that the likely reason for the debacle was the fact that companies that are now awarded government contracts for massive web projects like HealthCare.gov  win those contracts not because they are the best firms, but rather because they are best able to navigate the government RFP (request for proposal) labyrinth. Here’s what Ezra Klein said in the Washington Post Wonk Blog last week:

[Government RFPs] tend to be really long and hard to read. They begin with a page of abbreviations and pointers to clauses in the federal regulation. No normal, functional human being would read those clauses and understand them without years of experience and some legal help. This legal language and tone of authority really turns away people who might bid on these contracts.

Most of the really good web development firms I’m aware of are just too busy with good private sector clients to bother trying to jump through the hoops required to land a government job like this. The blog quoted above also says that big government tech contracts awarded over the past 10 years have a 96% failure rate due essentially to mismanagement (my oversimplification). What good tech firm would want one of these contracts? If this conjecture is true it’s a sad state of affairs. We need dedicated, talented people working on public sector, government and non-profit jobs.

What strikes me as a particularly odd dichotomy while watching the news over the past week is the juxtaposition of the HealthCare.gov mess followed by the latest hubbub about the NSA spying on our European allies.

UK.GOV site

On the one hand you have a ridiculous amount of red tape and government procurement oversight just to get a decent website out there — one that’s critical to the success of the biggest priority of the President of the United States. On the other hand you have a government agency, the NSA,  running amuck due to what appears to be a complete lack of oversight. What’s wrong with this picture?

I hope we can figure out how to get out of this downward spiral of craziness. My eternally optimistic side thinks it’s possible. I hope that side of me wins out. Another blog I read on this subject of government red tape pointed out that in Great Britain they are trying to strip it away. And with some success. Check out uk.gov as a recent success story. Apparently the product on a less onerous process. Great UXD in my opinion!

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