The openwashing of Healthcare.gov

Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services
Photo: U.S. Department of Health and Human Services

Perhaps the old saw “lipstick on a pig” is the best description for the information technology fiasco that was Healthcare.gov on October 1, 2013.

A project hyped in open government circles for its innovative content delivery architecture and use of open source frameworks became almost unusable for the first week of the launch, as the beautiful website failed more often than not when clicking through to the “Log in” link.

Or maybe the best way to describe the rollout of the site is “openwashing.”

Behind a thin veneer of Jekyll, a simple yet-elegant GitHub repository and a hot boutique consulting firm, Healthcare.gov was upon launch a bloated and badly designed project reportedly led by a giant government contractor.

In March, Development Seed, the brilliant DC team behind MapBox and active on projects such as the Google Election Center, was touting the initial Healthcare.gov site as “completely new and open source.”

“We’re going to build it and then buy insurance through it,” the firm’s co-founder said in a June profile of the project. Development Seed reposted parts of that profile on its blog, including a key quote from Bryan Sivak, the Health and Human Services chief technology officer:

“The goal is get people enrolled. A step to that goal is to build a health insurance marketplace. It is so much better to build it in a way that’s open, transparent and enables updates.”

But last week, as angry reports flooded out about folks unable to navigate the sign-in and marketplace features of Healthcare.gov, HHS and its subagency, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, weren’t commenting on what went wrong. On Friday, Reuters reported that CGI, a sprawling professional services contractor out of Canada that delivers everything from payroll setup to websites and turns up in $1.15 billion in contracts with a simple search on USASpending.gov, was responsible for the site.

Greenwashing describes misleading and deceptive practices meant to “green up” corporations and their business practices to gain public approval. Green PR has gained popularity along with public support for the environment, so I guess it’s to the open government movement’s credit that we regularly see openwashing at all levels of government (read here for a thorough critique of openwashing in government).

Openwashing in government is spin that deceptively promotes IT projects and policies as “transparent” and “innovative” when actual practices and spending are not.

It’s openwashing when President Obama claims his is the “most transparent administration in history” while ushering in an era of ubiquitous government-sponsored digital spying on private citizens and regularly rejecting Freedom of Information Act requests.

It’s openwashing when the mayor of San Francisco gives large tax breaks to the portfolio companies of one of his biggest campaign backers and calls it “tech policy.”

And it’s openwashing when the tech head of a giant federal agency rolls into SXSW talking about innovation while the guts of his biggest web property are rotten on launch.

About Adriel Hampton

Adriel Hampton is a blogger.

1 Response

  1. […] And where it all seems to fail is this concept that we’re building a contraption that has so many parts that even though only one part of it is open source and the rest is not, it’s just not an open source project.  Period.  Kin Lane writes about how the lack of transparency is the overwhelming flaw  in this project.  A term that describes this is called openwashing.  […]

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