The Corporate Ethos That Contributed to Healthcare.gov’s Failure

Always blame the contractor.

Photo by KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images

Newsweek has a deep dive into the doings of CGI, the Montreal-based behemoth who scored the healthcare.gov project. Along with detailing allegations of shady contract-bidding schemes, the story shows how the ethos of CGI Federal, which beat out three other companies for the healthcare.gov contract, could have proved problematic:

CGI has a slim policy manual and relatively little in-house training for its staff – unusual for a company that now has 69,000 employees across 400 worldwide offices. Under a “make your own job” ethos, CGI Group generally does not give employees job descriptions or job titles; instead, it lumps their skills into a database and requires them to find their own projects within the company. As part of that “manage yourself” mandate, CGI doesn’t even track sick days, and its three-week “bench policy” requires an employee to find a new project in that time-frame or risk being fired. Most employees are identified as “consultants,” and are compensated through profit-sharing plans. All that traces back to [founder Serge] Godin’s favorite saying: “Nobody ever washes a rental car” – if you own it, you will take care of it.

That “manage yourself” philosophy may work fine within the confines of one company, but when dealing with multiple contractors and federal agencies, it’s no wonder one of the problems with the healthcare.gov rollout was a lack of communication between front-end and back-end developers. Of course, CGI is not wholly responsible for healthcare.gov’s failure, and the tangle of responsibility is difficult to pick apart. That should be abundantly clear to anyone who watched each agency rep effuse that the site rollout was definitely not their fault during the House Energy and Commerce Committee hearings.*

But as David Auerbach has written, if you’re creating a website meant to service a large swath of Americans, and juggling multiple contractors, you’d better have a good management system in place. One step the government could take, as Auerbach mentions, would be for the government to hire a “schedule asshole” to keep the contractors in line. As it is, Godin’s proverbial car remains unwashed.

Short programming note: The Weigel blog will be off Friday, Nov. 29. Happy Thanksgiving!

*Correction, Dec. 2, 2013: This post originally stated that healthcare.gov contractors testified at hearings before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform.