Software failures can have all sorts of bad consequences, ranging from minor annoyances up to and including death. On that scale, the very public problems that people currently run into when they try to use the Affordable Care Act’s website to buy federally-mandated insurance are somewhere in the middle. (Since President Obama is on record as having no objection to the term “Obamacare” for the Act, I will use it too from this point on.) To my knowledge, no one has yet died as a direct consequence of not being able to use the site.
But on the other hand, it’s hard to think of another software-related issue that has garnered so much negative publicity in as short a time. While there is plenty of blame to go around, the question I’m interested in today has to do with the ethics of software engineering, and what lessons this debacle can teach us along those lines.
Software engineering is a relative latecomer to the engineering fold. There were only a few dozen programmable computers in the world as late as 1950, and the first U. S. undergraduate programs in software engineering were not accredited until 2003. But few types of engineering involve the average non-technical customer more directly than the design of high-volume websites, which requires strategic and organizational planning as an essential aspect of the overall process.
According to published reports, the rollout of the www.healthcare.gov website was something of a rush job. For political reasons, the Oct. 1 deadline could not be postponed, and many changes were being made right up to the last minute. Finally, there was little time for beta testing with a small group of friendly and informative users who could find problems in time for them to be fixed before the main rollout.
I am glad I was not one of the people who worked on this website, but I can sympathize with them. My last major engineering job before deciding to go back to school for my Ph. D. was with a firm that wanted to make cable boxes, the little thing that sits on (or now, under) your TV and selects channels. The company had never made a large-volume consumer product before. Up to that time, most of their customers were military and scientific users who paid plenty for a few hand-crafted instruments. Despite the best efforts of our engineering team, the new box never worked right. At one point I had a conversation with an older engineer who said, “I’m looking at your group and what I see is a bunch of trapped engineers.” I later learned that the company ended up recalling all the boxes from the field at a cost of six million dollars. By that time, I was in grad school and dealing with problems of a different sort.
Sometimes, engineers are placed in an impossible situation where even Superman couldn’t deliver the goods as requested, and minimizing damage is about all you can do, at least to start with. The Obamacare website was a large and complex project that everyone knew would both receive tons of traffic from all sorts of people, most of them technically unsophisticated, and would also draw intense media attention, much of it potentially hostile. If it had been up to the software engineers, the project might have been “frozen” (no more major changes allowed) up to a year in advance of Oct. 1, and early versions would have gone through beta testing with larger and more varied groups of test subjects with plenty of time to work out the glitches before launch.
Obviously, that didn’t happen. At the risk of sounding biased, I will state here that the way this project was carried out seems to reflect a mindset which is evident in other actions of the Obama administration. The President and a circle of powerful like-minded people in the administration have a set of ideas which they all agree on as The Way Things Should Be. Philosophically, they are idealists in the sense that they start with ideas, and then try to make reality conform to their ideas. Evidently, the political people in charge of implementing Obamacare were coming up with more ideas for the website right up to the time that it was turned on, and disregarded the hard engineering realities of designing a website that must handle many millions of users who are faced with a fine if they don’t sign up for insurance through the site by the end of the year.
The problem with philosophical idealism is that it sometimes collides with reality, and in such collisions, reality always wins. In such encounters, idealists may or may not learn the error of their ways. Of necessity, they end up doing what reality requires them to do, but often in a way that is inefficient, expensive, and more trouble than otherwise.
A new deadline of November 30 has been announced as the day by which www.healthcare.gov will be working. Jeffrey Zients, the Chief Performance Officer of the United States, is now in charge of fixing it, and has declared publicly that “Healthcare.gov is fixable.” Any system that is not physically impossible is fixable given enough time and resources, but only time will tell whether Zients and his underlings can get the repairs done on time.
But the rocky startup has added more fuel to the fire of ill feeling that the US public in general harbours toward the federal government. In a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press released in late October, only 19 percent of those polled said that they trust the government in Washington to do what is right just about always or most of the time. Before about 1970, most people did have such trust, but the trend since the early 1960s has been downward, falling below 50 percent around 1973 (the peak of the Vietnam War) and has risen above 50 percent since then only once: right after 9/11/2001 and the first war in Afghanistan.
The fact that most people in the US no longer think that their government can be trusted in this way goes beyond partisan politics to signal deep structural problems in the way power is allocated and used. This is much more than a problem in engineering ethics, but engineers have to deal with it like everyone else. And those working on www.healthcare.gov bear a particular responsibility to exhibit leadership in the days to come.
Karl D. Stephan is a professor of electrical engineering at Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. This article has been republished, with permission, from his blog, Engineering Ethics, which is a MercatorNet partner site.