White House woos HealthCare.gov critic with private briefing

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Last Friday, John Engates, Chief Technology Officer at Rackspace Hosting received an email inviting a representative of his firm to a private briefing at the White House. Engates has been a vocal critic of the HealthCare.gov launch calling it "one of the most spectacular public failures of any website ever."

The briefing was held Monday morning in the White House Situation Room with a half dozen private sector IT experts in attendance, according to Engates, including representatives from IBM, Salesforce.com and ExactTarget.com. Members of the media were not invited. In fact, the private industry group received the kind of access that members of the news media, including CBS News, have requested but been denied. 

White House heavy-hitters were on hand including Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, Chief Technology Officer Todd Park, Chief Information Officer Steven VanRoekel and the official spearheading the tech surge to fix HealthCare.gov: Jeff Zients. The group was then shuttled off for a tour of the operations center for HealthCare.gov at the Maryland offices of contractor QSSI. The group was instructed not to share some aspects of what they observed, including specific numbers and statistics displayed in the operations center.

"Maybe they wanted sort of outside validation that what they were doing were the right things," Engates told CBS News. He says he "left D.C. confident that the health care site is on track to be fixed" and praised what he called the administration's transparency after a period of initial opaqueness.

Rackspace Hosting is a leading firm specializing in high capacity eCommerce. Engates says White House officials solicited advice from the private technology experts it hosted Monday, but that the HealthCare.gov experts appear to already have been working on the suggested fixes.

As the White House nears a self-imposed deadline of Dec. 1 to have the website operating smoothly for the vast majority of users, Obama administration officials on Wednesday urged proponents of HealthCare.gov not to push new enrollments because of new concerns about capacity. Error rates and wait times are substantially improved and the site can handle 50,000 users at once. But the officials worry that a surge of customers could provoke another round of outages and negative news stories.

"If 250,000 people show up to a site that can only handle 50,000, it's not usually the case that the first 50,000 have a great experience and the others don't. It's that all have a poor experience or no experience whatsoever," says Engates.

Engates says there are lessons that his customers can learn from the HealthCare.gov experience including making sure there's enough time for appropriate testing ahead of time (which the government website lacked), launching to a limited audience before the full rollout, and developing a "rock-solid monitoring strategy" to alert issues before they become big problems.

As to HealthCare.gov's disastrous launch, Engates says he sees a big part of the issue was in the administration making Oct. 1 an immoveable start date. 

"I think there was probably lack of transparency in the chain that led up to the present and people were probably covering their butts to some extent to make sure the bad news didn't make it all the way up the chain and hoping for the best, hoping things would work out."

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    Sharyl Attkisson is a CBS News investigative correspondent based in Washington.