The opening of the Affordable Care Act exchanges, the insurance marketplaces now open to people in 36 states, has been something of a disaster.
Three weeks in, people are still struggling to purchase insurance through the Healthcare.gov website.
Today, the President gave a speech on the glitches, following yesterday’s announcement by the White House that it plans to try a “tech surge,” which will funnel more experts into fixing an incredibly frustrating situation. Throwing more time and money at the website isn’t likely to fix things anytime soon, however, and could be disastrous. Adding more people to a struggling project often makes things worse, not better.
That’s the central thesis of Frederick Brooks’ classic book, “The Mythical Man-Month,” which perfectly fits this situation, as pointed out by Matt Yglesias at Slate. The most famous axiom from the book, described as the “Bible of software engineering,” is Brooks’ law, which states that “adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.”
“Men and months are not interchangeable,” Brooks writes. “When schedule slippage is recognised, the natural (and traditional) response is to add manpower. Like dousing a fire with gasoline, this makes matters worse, much worse. More fire requires more gasoline, and thus begins a regenerative cycle, which ends in disaster.”
The first instinct of anyone who needs to get more done quicker is to add more people. But particularly when it comes to software, this notion is far from reality. Software projects are hard to split into easily defined tasks, and they require an immense amount of communication and management to complete. Adding more people makes these issues massively more complex.
According to a Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) blog post, the group plans to bring in “some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve HealthCare.gov.”
Yet adding people unfamiliar with the technology and putting them under enormous pressure could create even more issues.
Until recently, the administration has held the line that any issues are due to the site’s popularity. Reportedly the problems run much deeper than that, existing on both the front and back ends, and there may be issues with the data that’s going to insurers.
While it’s encouraging that the administration’s admitting there’s an issue and devoting more resources to identifying and fixing them, they’re still referring to the traffic as the principal problem, raising expectations about the tech surge, and not acknowledging how long things might take.
A quick fix is an unrealistic expectation, will make any delay seem worse than it is, and ramp up the pressure on everybody involved.
The best strategy is to be honest about the issues and to take the time needed to do things right.
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