“THE…DISASTER WAS completely avoidable, as administrators knew the system was not ready, yet decided to launch it anyway… Investigations cannot undo the taxpayer dollars wasted and the disruption of families’ access to health care.”
That comment could have been voiced recently by critics of the state’s troubled vaccine finder website – but it wasn’t. It was actually a critique of the state’s disastrous rollout of the Health Connector website in 2014, built under then-Gov. Deval Patrick. The speaker was then-gubernatorial candidate Charlie Baker – now the governor in charge of the Vaxfinder website best known for the four-armed orange octopus that appeared when it crashed.
There are significant differences between the debacles. The Health Connector website failure cost hundreds of millions of dollars and, in its initial form, never worked. The state had to give hundreds of thousands of people temporary Medicaid coverage because it couldn’t figure out what insurance they were eligible for. The Vaxfinder website cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, and ultimately, it has worked, with tens of thousands of people using it to sign up for vaccine appointments, despite the difficulties.
Yet the state’s rollout of Vaxfinder 3.0 on Wednesday begs the question of why the state has so many technology problems.
In 2013, the Boston Globe highlighted problems the state had with Deloitte Consulting. The firm was fired by the Department of Revenue after a disastrous attempt to install a new computer system for residents to file taxes. Deloitte had already botched a Labor Department system to handle unemployment benefits.
A Denver consultant told the Globe that public officials often don’t fire consultants because they risk damaging their reputations or igniting public ire. “In the private sector, these people would be fired in a second,” said Z. Vanessa Giacoman.
In 2017, Baker created a new Executive Office of Technology Services and Security, elevating the state’s technology head to a cabinet-level position in an attempt to improve state-run technology.
Yet, problems persist. The Globe recently reported that people claiming unemployment benefits are struggling to use the state’s unemployment insurance system, which was labeled a “dinosaur” by a legislative oversight committee. The Department of Unemployment Assistance admits the system has been strained by unusually heavy use – and fraud – during the pandemic.
State officials have been moving at a glacially slow pace to implement a new criminal justice cross-tracking system required by the 2018 criminal justice reform bill. Much of the difficulty seems to stem from the different – and sometimes antiquated – systems used by various criminal justice agencies. For example, the state auditor recently deemed the 20-year-old case management system used by the state’s district attorneys “outdated and ineffective.”
Then there’s the COVID vaccine appointment site. First, the state simply listed each vaccination provider online, requiring users to click through each one to search for an appointment. Then it debuted the Vaxfinder site, which aggregated providers and showed residents where appointments were available. That site crashed because it couldn’t handle the heavy traffic when everyone 65 and older became eligible. State officials then installed a “waiting room” feature – in which one resident was told their wait time was 65,540 minutes.
On Wednesday, facing criticism for not allowing people to pre-register for vaccines – thus avoiding the weekly scramble for appointments – the Baker administration debuted a pre-registration system. The system for now is limited – it only applies to mass vaccination sites – and eliminates some flexibility, since people will be assigned to a site closest to their home.
It remains to be seen how well it will work. But the larger question remains. In a state that is home to some of the world’s best universities and most successful private technology companies — where the World Wide Web itself was fine-tuned — why are public technology projects so sorely lacking?