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12/18/2013
08:05 AM
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Microsoft Exec To Run HealthCare.gov

Former Microsoft Office division president Kurt DelBene will lead troubled healthcare insurance site through the first half of 2014.

The White House has tapped Microsoft executive Kurt DelBene to lead the government's federal health care insurance exchange site, Kathleen Sebelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services announced Tuesday.

DelBene, who most recently served as president of Microsoft Office Division, will succeed Jeff Zients as a senior advisor to Sebelius and will work closely with the White House and senior HHS leaders, Sebelius wrote in a blog post. DelBene has agreed to serve in the role "at least through the first half of next year," she said, as the administration officials prepare to beef up efforts to enroll citizens into the government's Affordable Health Care for America Act program.

"Kurt has proven expertise in heading large, complex technology teams and in product development. He will be a tremendous asset in our work," Sebelius said.

[ State insurance exchanges face their own challenges. Read Health Insurance Exchanges Struggle To Charm Customer. ]

She also praised Zients, who took over the HealthCare.gov project after widespread performance problems erupted into a political firestorm for the administration, following the exchange's Oct. 1 launch. Zients, a former acting director and chief performance officer at the Office of Management and Budget, orchestrated a series of repair initiatives to fix more than 400 software bugs and upgrade the site.

Kurt DelBene is the latest to run HealthCare.gov. Photo: MicrosoftPDC, Flickr
Kurt DelBene is the latest to run HealthCare.gov. Photo: MicrosoftPDC, Flickr

"Kurt will provide management expertise, operations oversight, and critical advice on additional enrollment channels, field operations, marketing and communications," Sebelius said. "The President and I believe strongly in having one person, with strong experience and expertise in management and execution, who is thinking 24/7 about HealthCare.gov."

DelBene, who has worked for Microsoft since 1992 and has not held an administration position before, will need to focus quickly on the administration's goal of ramping up enrollment in the federal healthcare exchange, and ensuring the site's performance meets expectations, in time for the March 31, 2014, deadline when open enrollments close. 

As Sebelius laid out the task in her blog post, that will mean focusing on "increasing system stability, redundancy and capacity, and building on improvements to the user interface, while continuing to prioritize security and privacy issues in line with industry best practices." 

But he will also have to learn the finer points of working with many players behind the scenes of the troubled Obamacare website, including CMS administrator Marilyn Tavenner, who heads up the agency responsible for the website, and the project's general contractor, QSSI, which was elevated to manage development when Zients took control, displacing the original contractor, CSI Federal.

According to Microsoft, DelBene held leadership roles at the company, including the Microsoft Business Division, Microsoft Outlook and Microsoft Exchange. He had announced in July that he planned to retire from Microsoft by the end of this year.  DelBene is the husband of freshman Rep. Suzan DelBene (D-Wash.)

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SaneIT
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SaneIT,
User Rank: Ninja
12/18/2013 | 8:34:09 AM
Leading Healthcare.gov
I can't say that's a job I'd be racing to take.  Now might be a better time to take the position than when the project started since we know what shape the site is in right now but I get the feeling there will still be a lot of bumps in the next six months.  I wish him the best of luck but I suspect he knows what he's getting into and has a turn around plan in mind.
Whoopty
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Whoopty,
User Rank: Ninja
12/18/2013 | 8:37:13 AM
Surprised
I was surprised that the Obama administration didn't take on more tech professionals to handle it in the first place. It was a bit shortsighted to expect such a high profile system to not suffer problems this soon out the gate. 
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 10:38:54 AM
Re: Surprised
Thanks for chiming in Whoopty.  But I think this was a case where what the administration needed was more project management professionals -- capable of building the equivalent of a city, not a building -- than simply taking on more tech professionals.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
12/18/2013 | 3:13:06 PM
Re: Surprised
What I don't get is why didn't they have someone like him in charge from the very beginning? The only possible flaw is that he's spent the bulk of his career at Microsoft, the epitome of a streamlined, well run private organization, and I wonder how well his experience will translate to working in government.
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 4:34:19 PM
Re: Surprised
Thanks for commenting, Gary_EL. One way to think about this:  What do you suppose a Microsoft president earns in salary and stock options.   And what do you suppose the deputy CIO at the Centers for Medicatre and Medicaid makes? 

It usually comes down to one of those phone calls where someone from the White House says, "Your country needs you."  Not everyone comes.
Gary_EL
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Gary_EL,
User Rank: Ninja
12/18/2013 | 5:03:16 PM
Re: Surprised
True, WKash, the money isn't there - but the visibility is. It's a way for a high achiever like Mr. DelBene to attain fame, and to come to the attention of the general public, and not just to readers of business pages. It's an end in its own right, and a great way to start a career in politics. Maybe he'll run for a state governorship or the US Senate if he can prove his worth in this very difficult effort.
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 5:16:24 PM
Re: Surprised
Gary_EL, thanks for the reply.  One of the encouraging refrains I so often hear from folks who get into government is the sense of purpose they discover.  It isn't only about a springboard into the public spotlight.  Rather it's the chance to work on some of the monumental challenges that typically falls to government -- and the likelohood that you'll end up working with some of the most talented people you'll ever meet.  Public service simply offers the chance to do something in one's life that often is lost in the private sector.

 
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 9:06:19 AM
DelBene is a good choice
I've interviewed DelBene a handful of times and think he's a good choice to lead this effort. He's upbeat, unflappable, on-message, and smart. He led Microsoft's cloud move to Office 365 and handled other enterprise-grade initiatives with aplomb. This country needs affordable healthcare that works, so let's hope DelBene can lead the way on this project.
Shane M. O'Neill
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Shane M. O'Neill,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 9:53:19 AM
Re: DelBene is a good choice
I met and interviewed DelBene as well and found him to be smart and even-keeled. He's well-respected at Microsoft and did a good job managing the Office division and transitioning to the Office 365 cloud service. I bet he's glad to be taking over healthcare.gov now rather than three months ago. At least now we know generally what needs to be fixed.
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 10:49:33 AM
Re: DelBene is a good choice
Doug, I think you nailed the kind of skills that will matter at this point.  Appreciate your assessment.

One thing in DelBene's favor: He agreed to take the job for just six months.  That means he can focus on what needs to be truly fixed and properly engineered without getting trapped into more of the operational morass. He won't be able to change acquisition rules, or contracts.  But he will be able (hopefully) to put the necessary management disciplines and technology development practices in place to let HHS/CMS move forward.
David F. Carr
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David F. Carr,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 9:09:49 AM
Right guy for the job?
I'd think the ideal candidate would be someone who had led a consumer-focused Internet project team, with experience addressing the scale and usability issues that entails. Or maybe not: arguably the shortcomings of HealthCare.gov have been more at the level of project management and looks like he has those chops.
D. Henschen
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D. Henschen,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 10:28:30 AM
Re: Right guy for the job?
Office 365 is pretty much the epitome of a high-scale, consumer-facing Web site. Yes, businesses and large orgs are a big part of the user base, but so too are small businesses and individuals.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
12/18/2013 | 12:48:21 PM
I don't like revolving doors, but...
I don't know anything about him, except for what's given in the article and I worry about the possibility that he'll try to use his new job to his current employer's advantage, but if he does his job well and puts together a system that even ACA opponents can be proud of, then he will deserve the country's thanks; and maybe he can succeed Steve Ballmer as MS-CEO.

 
ChrisMurphy
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ChrisMurphy,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 6:57:32 PM
Re: I don't like revolving doors, but...
I do like revolving doors. As soon as something like this goes wrong in government, we point to Amazon and eBay and Nasdaq and say "if the private sector can do it, why can't government?" We can't have it both ways, saying we want public-private cross-pollination of knowledge but not people.
jries921
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jries921,
User Rank: Ninja
12/18/2013 | 8:42:59 PM
True enough, but...
...regulatory capture has been a problem in government for well over a century and favoritism has been a problem much longer.  Those who accept government employment need to lay their private interests aside, focus on the public interest, and be paid well enough that they can afford to.  I'm very glad that Mr. DelBene is retiring from MS.  That means he can take the 6 months he has agreed on to do the job right without worrying about his future career and then retire.  If he holds any MS stock he should sell it now so that he can afford to be completely impartial.

We want government to run efficiently, but we want it to serve the public interest, not follow the dictates of industry lobbyists who can offer jobs and campaign funds to their loyal allies.

 

SupporterWikipedia: In heraldry, supporters are figures usually placed on either side of the shield and depicted holding it up.
Brian.Dean
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Brian.Dean,
User Rank: Ninja
12/19/2013 | 10:36:46 AM
Re: True enough, but...
Government will always be less efficient compared to their relative national businesses and the reason is that salaries are distorted in the government sector. The best that can be hoped for is that the gap in efficiency between the two does not become too wide.
cbabcock
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cbabcock,
User Rank: Strategist
12/18/2013 | 1:00:30 PM
Microsoft a training ground for cross-vendor ops?
Too many critical eyes are watching for DelBene to come in and try to make HealthCare.gov use more Microsoft technologies. I don't think he'll do that. The problem, if there is one, is that he may be schooled too much in how Microsoft projects work and not enough in how a big government project, with many interoperable, cross-vendor pieces, has to work.
WKash
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WKash,
User Rank: Author
12/18/2013 | 5:05:10 PM
Re: Microsoft a training ground for cross-vendor ops?
CBabcok, you raise a fair question, is a "management degree" from Microsoft sufficient to fix what ails the govenment's HealthCare.gov program.

It's worth noting that another Microsoft executive has already, arguably, proven he can bring added-value thinking and sound management discipline to the halls of government without imposing a bias for Microsoft products.  I'm speaking of course of Steve VanRoekel, who worked many years at Microsoft, including a stint with Bill Gates, and now serves as Federal CIO.

No question, the learning curve for a private sector boss thrown into government is a steep one, and not for everyone, no matter what company you trained at. 

I'd encourage DelBene, and any other executive tasked with leading a government IT program, to heed the lessons that former NASA CIO Linda Cureton shared with our readers recently in her article:
Conquering IT's Three Monsters
shuber
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shuber,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/18/2013 | 4:15:49 PM
Microsoft Exec Running Healthcare.gov
How long until we see the Blue Cross screen of death?
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