By Mark Oppenheim
Prognostications of dueling partisans and media pundits notwithstanding, the Obamacare website debacle is less than a death knell but more than a mere glitch. Since we also recruit IT professionals to serve nonprofits, we thought: what lessons can nonprofits that need to manage IT systems learn from all this?
First, don’t just trust assurances of “experts” when it comes to implementing information systems.
The Obamacare website was designed, developed and implemented by businesses with lots of experience working under government contract. Those contracts were managed by government oversight professionals, who also have lots of experience. Both parties had a common interest: be perceived as successful. Despite this, the two year effort resulted in failure. Business and government professionals both failed; but the biggest failure was that political leaders trusted what smart people said about what they could deliver. Those leaders trusted, then failed to verify.
Delivering successful IT systems is not just about the capabilities of your contractors or your IT professionals that oversee contractors; it’s also about leaders exercising appropriate checks and controls to ensure that everyone remains on target.
Second, keep it simple.
It’s true that a certain level of complexity is inevitable, especially in the case of the Affordable Care Act where there was an attempt to appease a complex network of constituents with divergent interests, not to mention the hyper partisanship of today’s political landscape that blocks compromise. That said, there is just no excuse for the Obamacare website failing to enable people to sign on, navigate the site, and start the enrolling process.
Instead of keeping things simple by focusing on easy registration, the Obamacare site’s architects tried to incorporate all sorts of cross-reference checks against data held by different systems. The IT lesson here is to brutally focus ONLY on systems features that MUST WORK. Once these features work and work well (and only then), move on to the next most important thing.
Third, have a strategy for dealing with opponents.
In every IT project, there are people who will make the project easier or more difficult to implement. These people need to be heard and understood, and then strategies must be developed to enable the project to be successful with their support or despite their opposition.
The strategies might include education and training, attempts to communicate and persuade, incorporating suggested improvements into the project, or incentives for key people to align to project objectives. Strategies might also include measures to sideline, undermine or even remove those who are unalterably opposed to needed change. Supporters of Obamacare thought that multiple decisions in the legislature and the courts meant that opposition would diminish, but they underestimated that opposition and remain ill-prepared for it.
Be realistic about how people feel and what they will support. If you want to get something done, then don’t be naïve about the commitment of your supporters and the ability of opponents to derail efforts. Be realistic about the time and attention to detail that it will take to get the thing accomplished. And if you’ve made a decision to invest substantial resources in IT, then either play to win or expect to lose your investment.
Nonprofits rarely have the funding or engineering expertise to develop their own systems, but they can shape quality IT solutions that support their mission and are delivered by competent vendors if their leadership teams:
- Remember the importance of skeptical oversight
- Keep it simple, simple, simple!
- Deal decisively with both the supporters and the opponents of IT projects.
Mark Oppenheim is an unrepentant nonprofit wonk who runs nonprofit search and media organizations.
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