It Could Be Worse

Rusty Foster | The New Yorker | October 21, 2013

On October 1st, the first day of the government shutdown, the U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services launched, a four-hundred-million-dollar online marketplace designed to help Americans research and purchase health insurance. In its first days, only a small fraction of users could create an account or log in. The problems were initially attributed to high demand. But as days turned into weeks,’s troubles only seemed to multiply. Reports appeared of applications freezing half-completed and of the system “putting users in inescapable loops, and miscalculating healthcare subsidies.” Politico reported that “Web brokers … have been unable to connect to the federal system.” is the public face of the Obama Administration’s signature policy achievement, and its launch has been widely derided as a disaster. But it could have been worse.

On September 11, 2001, the F.B.I. was still using a computer system that couldn’t store or display pictures; entering data was time-consuming and awkward, and retrieving it even more so. A 9/11 Commission staff report concluded that “the FBI’s primary information management system, designed using 1980s technology already obsolete when installed in 1995, limited the Bureau’s ability to share its information internally and externally.” But an overhaul of that system had already begun in the months leading up to 9/11. In June, 2001, the F.B.I. awarded the contractor Science Applications International Corp. (S.A.I.C.) a fourteen-million-dollar contract to upgrade the F.B.I.’s computer systems. The project was called Virtual Case File, or V.C.F., and it would ultimately cost over six hundred million dollars before finally being abandoned, in early 2005, unfinished and never deployed. V.C.F. was then replaced with a project called Sentinel, expected to launch in 2009, which was “designed to be everything V.C.F. was not, with specific requirements, regular milestones and aggressive oversight,” according to F.B.I. officials who spoke to the Washington Post in 2006. [...]