Monday, February 1, 2021

CDC’s Vaccine Data System

Cat Ferguson (via Hacker News, Reddit):

Unless you’re in one of the few states using it, you may not have heard of VAMS. But it was supposed to be a one-stop shop where employers, state officials, clinics, and individuals could manage scheduling, inventory, and reporting for covid shots—and free for anyone to use.

Instead, “VAMS has become a cuss word,” Marshall Taylor, head of South Carolina’s health department, told state lawmakers in January. He went on to describe how the system has badly hurt their immunization efforts so far. Faced with a string of problems and bugs, several states, including South Carolina, are choosing to hack together their own solutions, or pay for private systems instead.


In May, it gave the task to consulting company Deloitte, a huge federal contractor, with a $16 million no-bid contract to manage “covid-19 vaccine distribution and administration tracking.” In December, Deloitte snagged another $28 million for the project, again with no competition. The contract specifies that the award could go as high as $32 million, leaving taxpayers with a bill between $44 and $48 million.

Why was Deloitte awarded the project on a no-bid basis? The contracts claim the company was the only “responsible source” to build the tool.


3 Comments RSS · Twitter

My experience, setting up my mom's appointment in VAMS here in Connecticut, has been smooth so far. The appointment is for tomorrow, so we'll see how it turns out. We did get the followup, pre-appointment email confirming the time and notifying us of a change in location. So far so good.

“$16 million … contract”

And there’s your problem right there. At that level of spend the last people on the planet to be involved in the system’s construction will be the ones who actually understand the processes (both normal and abnormal) to be automated, because running those processes correctly is already their job. Should’ve given those people a $1M budget, told them to beg/borrow/steal their own developers and build their own solution for themselves. Because they know what they need† and won’t stop till they’ve got it.

Once the key stakeholders are five-times removed from the development by layers and layers of cash-sucking deadweight middle management, there’s no way in hell the developers at the bottom of that pile are going to build a successful solution, because they don’t understand the processes themselves and have no avenues to learn.

(And that’s assuming developers who are interested in learning the processes for themselves, and most are not. Particularly not the sort of developers who already self-selected for dead-wood chair-warming careers at Deloitte and Capita. No risk; no responsibility. Not the sort of job that invites asking questions and generally rocking the boat.)

Small tight self-motivated projects succeed because they don’t have the luxury of disappearing up their own arse for month and years. The moment they do, no-one is afraid to scrap that attempt and try over; because that is cheap and easy to do. Focus breeds parsimony; which yields small, fast, incremental deliverables; which grows overall experience and keeps the time-and-budget cost of individual failures small and highly controlled. Because nobody (excepting Donald Knuth) ever nails it on their first attempt; so you have to try and fail and try again in order to finally get there.

But the moment a project is #TooBigToFail it’s doomed, because no-one will dare pull that trigger that needs to be pulled, as soon as it needs to be pulled; never mind do it again and again. Because everyone’s too damn busy running defense, trying to cover up the mistakes lest it be them that’s used for the next convenient scapegoat.


† This does not mean users that know how it should work (which I know, frustratingly, is how users like to express their raw thoughts), but it’s the developers’ job to guide and extract from that torrent a mutual understanding of why things need to be done, and why they need to be done the way that they are—and then automate the tar out of that.

In May, it gave the task to consulting company Deloitte

As someone whose employer used to bid against and, occasionally, work “with” the Deloittes of the federal contracting world when we did win, I think I’ve found the problem.

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