No win game: April Todd-Malmlov and MNsure

MinnPost photo by James Nord
If you have a software project that’s heading to the ground like a lead zeppelin you can’t have an expectation that the director / manager will tell people to get cracking and work twice as hard and get things fixed ship shape no time flat.

April Todd-Malmlov was scapegoated. I am opposed to MNsure in ideology, concept, and practice, but it’s hard to feel schadenfreude. Rather, as an uninvested bystander I feel some ire at the injustice, seeing this person take the fall for what can’t be helped. Anyway, note these truths:

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The reason MNsure doesn’t work is because the site opened for business before it was done. Its launch was given a go live date that came from the legislative process rather than a software development process. If it isn’t obvious, you can’t do it that way. In the practical world, you plan on building software along a schedule, and you take it live on the prod date if development goes mostly according to plan and you finish with a functional package. Maybe there’s caveats in there for minor bugs that you launch with.

But you don’t do what MNsure did and the feds did, which is abide by an arbitrary launch date and take whatever code you (think) you have finished into production without testing. If you do, it’s inevitable that you’ll launch a non-functional system.

But that’s what they did, because in the political world they had to abide by the political dates. And I guess insofar as someone has to be made responsible for the absurdities of ACA at the local level, Todd-Malmlov is as good as anyone else to fire, shame, and embarrass. But MNsure’s failure to this point is not a reflection of her competence. She was compelled to abide by a process that was doomed to have early failures and embarrassments. Any person appointed to this position was going to fail, and thus any person in charge was doomed to be fired about this time, as the coverage date approached.

Put another way, she’s getting fired as if the original project plan with its launch date was actually realistic. It wasn’t. You’re not a failure if you fail to execute a project plan that was hopelessly naive.

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Then the thing is, if you have a software project that’s heading to the ground like a lead zeppelin you can’t have an expectation that the director / manager will tell people to get cracking and work twice as hard and get things fixed ship shape no time flat. You can’t have an expectation that’s going to work, anyway. The reality is, things get fixed as you are able to fix them. I’m dubious that she was malfeasant in her attention to the portal difficulties.

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It’s not apparent at all that she’s underqualified or malfeasant.

Public stories indicate she’s got a MS in public health. Young-ish, go getter type.

Her vacation around the Thanksgiving break was not an abuse of public trust. I know there’s a matter of appearances, but I roll my eyes at that.

Stories this morning say that’s a $135k job she had. That’s under market for the responsilibility.

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I read the MNsure release and it’s not apparent to me that Todd-malmlov has lost her employment with the state. That would be apropos and a small grace, if true.

But if this gal hits the private sector she’ll end up with a VP job in analysis and tens of millions in earnings over the next 30 years. So there’s that for her.

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Is it just me? I have some feeling she’s being Amy Koch-ed, i.e., slut shamed, in Todd-malmlov’s case for going on vacation to the tropics with a man. Where she was PROBABLY HAVING SEX doncha know.

The prurient vibe here is bizarre. In any case, I blame KSTP first for the report framed in the way it is, and the Democrats second, for being suckered into it. I haven’t observed Minnesota Republicans dwelling much on this but I may be wrong.

And who do they bring in to save the day? A pasty middle aged white guy. The Democrats need really need to stop their war on women!

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I’m with the various national eggheads who have said this is ostensibly an easy portal to build. That its screwed up here in Minnesota as well makes me infer a dependency to the screwed up subsidy calculation engine that exists at the federal level. Again, not Todd-malmlov’s fault.

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This notion that the state exchanges are doing better than the fed exchange? True, if you never actually assert an actual comparison.

It’s crap.

This post was written by Erik Petersen and originally published on Zingy Skyway Lunch.

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Comments (7)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 12/18/2013 - 12:57 pm.

    I agree with you

    on most of your points, but the reason I would have fired her and the reason I would never hire her to another executive, program manager or even project manager position, is because she lied to me.

    “April Todd-Malmlov, the exchange director, launched the marketplace Tuesday. ‘I myself did the honors this afternoon,’ she said on a conference call to reporters Tuesday evening, noting that staff was ‘jubilant’ to have reached this milestone.”

    “People are just really happy to be hitting this date and to be up and successfully running,” she added.

    “Todd-Malmlov said the state was prepared for “high volume” traffic on the first day.”

    “Todd-Malmlov said users were able to go in and shop for a plan, create an account and determine whether they’re eligible for tax credits or public health programs. Small businesses could set up accounts and select plans for future employee enrollment.”

    “All the features exchange officials had promised on Monday were there, she said.”

    Politicians and pundits lie all the time. But if you want to be considered a professional and not just another political appointee, then you have to be willing to tell the truth even if it hurts your boss. She wasn’t willing to do that.

    Bottom line, you can get away with a lot of things if you work for me, but lying to me isn’t one of them.

    • Submitted by Erik Petersen on 12/18/2013 - 02:10 pm.

      Meh. There’s a group psychosis thing going on. Those lies aren’t run of the mill malevolent CYA deceptions and falsehoods.

      These people who are building the site are a network / social circle. There is a consensus within this circle that ‘things are going great’, and they keep repeating this until they reach a clarifying moment where it is no longer possible to do so. That just happened. But they point is, it’s very hard to naysay within that group psychosis. Especially if you are the leader.

      Other thing is, you can bet that some weeks ago the contractors and the feds were assuring this stuff was all fixable prior to the 1st. If you’re her, what does being properly skeptical of that gain you? Nothing.

    • Submitted by Jackson Cage on 12/19/2013 - 09:01 am.

      See Dubya for example…

      …”Iraq has WMD’s”
      …”Mission Accomplished”
      …”Browney’s doing a helluva job”.

      And those are just off the top of my head.

  2. Submitted by Rebecca Hoover on 12/18/2013 - 04:56 pm.

    Stay out of computer system and software development

    Obviously, the writer should stay out of computer system and software development. The MNSure website is junk–failing to incorporate even elementary principles of usability and effective software development.

    Todd-Malmlov was definitely part of the MNSure problem. The board seems incompetent too.

  3. Submitted by Harris Goldstein on 12/19/2013 - 01:01 pm.

    This is a uniquely government problem…

    except it isn’t.

    Horror stories of failed complex system launches – both in private or public sector – abound. Take a look at how often software vendors and/or their system implementers are sued by unhappy customers. Even without the added burden that this particular effort had to bear. And keep in mind that rarely are those failed implementations as groundbreaking as the healthcare exchange.

    A successful launch was a uphill battle from the very start; even without the the Republican sandbagging when they had control of the legislature. Here’s an interesting comment from MinnPost pages a year ago:

    “Dannette Coleman, a member of the task force and a health care expert from Medica, said Minnesota has a “50-50 chance of getting this pulled off” just in terms of the technological development and infrastructure needed.

    “Put the politics aside, put the policy aside even as to what you’re building. The ability to technologically build this is being overlooked,” Coleman said. “If you add into that a lack of common ground and continual fighting between these different interest groups, I think that makes it even more difficult to get done.”

    We might agree that the initial rollout is severely flawed but I doubt that anyone commenting on these pages really knows where to place the blame. But feel free to raise your hand if you’ve been successful at implementing a complex, web-based application with:
    – little precedent to work from
    – interfaces to government and private industry applications
    – a complex and difficult to understand product
    – a user base with little/no experience in shopping for healthcare
    – a too-short timeframe with shifting requirements and a hard implementation date
    – no pilot rollout
    – one element of your constituency working to see failure

    The MnSure director salary of $136k is a joke. Private industry compensation for a job with similar responsibility would be 2-3 times that, plus a bonus (if earned).

    That said, her decision to take vacation (barring extenuating circumstances that haven’t be made public) was not just “bad optics”. No amount of email or phone calls take the place of being there in person. At a minimum, I believe it was demoralizing to MnSure staff who (I assume) were working around the clock to fix the problems.

  4. Submitted by Karen Cole on 12/26/2013 - 02:56 pm.

    I do blame Todd-Malmlov

    I don’t come to this place easily. I strongly support the program. And know it is a big program to implement. And think everyone needs a vacation.

    But I have spent days and days trying to enroll for a policy. I finally was able to do that, and made a payment online. My bank records show that payment came out of my bank account.

    Today I received four (4) invoices for the January payment.

    No big deal, right? The system may have generated those invoices before the funds were actually taken out of the account.

    But when I go onto the MNsure system for my account, it doesn’t show that any payments were made.

    I called the insurance company. They have no record of me. As far as they’re concerned, I don’t exist.

    I’ve been on hold now for hours.

    Can I cancel my existing very expensive policy for January? Extremely expensive.

    So — like I said, I support this program. And know there are always glitches implementing a big new program.

    But, it was the height of irresponsibility to leave on vacation when all these problems were brewing.

    Todd-Malmlov should not be hired for any managerial position.

  5. Submitted by Steve Rose on 12/31/2013 - 07:49 am.

    Is it like their TV commercials?

    How do they execute a dismissal at MNSure; is it like there TV commercials, “Babe, get your blue ox over here!”?

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