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    Obamacare's Busted Site Cost More to Build Than Facebook and Twitter Combined

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    Meghan Neal

    Via Flickr

    This is America. We invented Google, Facebook, Amazon, and Apple. We basically own the internet. Yet the Federal government spent half a billion dollars building a website that won't work. What gives?

    A week after its launch, the myriad problems of the ill-fated Healthcare.gov have gotten worse, not better. And the narrative has changed along the way. At first, the Obama administration blamed the torrent of glitches and errors on traffic overload—8.6 million people visited the site in the first 72 hours.

    Then, as the days passed, engineers and programmers started pointing out that actually, the site was just terribly built. The infrastructure and design were ill-conceived, poorly developed, and inherently flawed. The coding is riddled with sloppy mistakes like spelling errors and “Lorem Ipsum Dolor” placeholder text.

    I could go on, or you can read it straight from the Redditors picking apart the issue on this thread:

    And yet the US government spent a cool $634 million to construct the portal, according to the numbers on USAspending.gov. As a point of comparison, Digital Trends pointed out that Facebook didn't spend $600 million for the first six years it was up and running. In fact Facebook's early financing was minuscule even in compared with today's successful startups. Early rounds of seed funding from the founders themselves, angel investors like Peter Thiel, and VC firms totalled about $42 million in the first year after it launched. Twitter launched with only $360 million in seed money, and LinkedIn and Spotify with under $300 million.

    The contrast helps illustrate the real problem with Healthcare.gov. Not being swamped with users, not the shoddy engineering—but the fact that innovation in the federal government versus the private sector is like apples and oranges. Bruised, mushy apples and fresh, delicious oranges.

    The Affordable Care Act’s highly publicized technical malfunction is a peek into a government system that's fundamentally broken. (As if we needed further proof of that, considering the government hasn't even been running for two weeks, now) At the root of the problem is the complex process of awarding government contracts to the IT firms tasked with developing new technology.

    The "procurement" process of government contracts is so labyrinthine, the administration has to hire firms that are adept at the process, even if that means they're not sufficiently adept at the actual task. As a result, despite a government budget of $80 billion a year for information-technology services, federal web services wind up clunky and glitchy like they're stuck in the dial-up age.

    “The episode is all too typical of how government creates IT services,” said Tom Lee, director of the Sunlight Labs research nonprofit, told the Washington Post yesterday. “The procurement process tends to select for firms that are good at navigating the procurement process, not providing good IT services for the dollar.”

    That's one the reasons the tech-savvy Obama administration launched the Presidential Innovation Fellowship, a program to make it easier for a broader range of tech companies and entrepreneurs to do business with the government. Ironically, when I went to the website to learn more about this push for innovation, I got this error message:

    People love to play the blame game, especially in politics, and for the last week the blame for the Affordable Care Act’s rocky launch has been tossed around wildly. But pointing fingers is usually a futile act. In this case, like many, the problem's roots are bigger than any one mistake or person.

    Experts point out the healthcare exchange portal is hugely complex, and has to work with dozens of other legacy federal websites. And unlike private startups, the government didn't have the luxury of a soft launch and beta test period to work out the kinks before millions of Americans came calling.

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