(/sites/default/files/uploads/2013/12/aca_marketplace_ap_605.jpg)Every leader has his great challenge. FDR had WW2. JFK had a trip to the moon. Ronald Reagan had the Cold War. George W. Bush had 9⁄11. Barack Obama has a website.
ObamaCare loyalists are calling the bid to repair the broken site a “moonshot” and quoting lines from Apollo 13 as if trying to fix an overgrown government website is like surviving a return to earth with a damaged spacecraft. America has gone from challenges like building 75,000 combat aircraft in a single year during WW2 and beating the Soviet Union to the moon… to trying to make a website work.
Obama’s two victories were widely credited to his Internet savvy. But the digital Hope and Change campaign was really more of a bait and switch. When it came to getting elected and staying popular; he outsourced the work to private sector professionals.
Obama’s digital strategy campaign was handled by talent from successful companies like Facebook and Google; including a Facebook co-founder. His health care website was put together by the usual crony contractors who were adept at pulling the right political strings to win no-bid contracts despite their terrible track records.
The Obama campaign would never have turned over its political fate to a company whose only virtue was that a top executive had gone to college with Michelle Obama. But it had no objection to tuning over the health care and private information of millions of Americans to their tender digital mercies.
Obama put his political fortunes ahead of the health and welfare of Americans. It was only when the Healthcare.gov disaster dealt a severe blow to his poll numbers that he called in a “tech surge” of engineers from Google and other politically friendly companies who had made his campaign work.
He didn’t call them in because he cared whether Americans had access to health care. If he had; he would have called them in a lot sooner. Instead he did it to bring his poll numbers back up again.
Obama’s bait and switch promised private sector level sophistication for a giant Socialist boondoggle. The digital strategy that had made him seem tech savvy was worlds away from the grinding bureaucratic mess that made Healthcare.gov the disaster that, despite all the claims to the contrary, it still is today.
Healthcare.gov could never have actually run like Amazon or iTunes; no matter what Obama promised. That idea was as ridiculous as trying to graft a water buffalo onto a greyhound. The private sector and public sector are different species of technology workflow.
Government employees are not all incompetent idiots and private sector employees aren’t all geniuses. There are plenty of smart people who work for the government and plenty of stupid people who work in the private sector.
It’s the process that is fundamentally different.
The Standish Group states that 94 percent of large federal information technology projects undertaken during the past decade were unsuccessful. These staggering numbers made the Healthcare.gov disaster inevitable.
Google and Facebook exist because small groups of students pushed themselves to accomplish ridiculously ambitious goals. If CGI, the primary Healthcare.gov contractor, had received a government contract to create Facebook to government specifications and with government oversight; there would be no Facebook today.
The issue isn’t difficulty level. It’s culture.
After Khrushchev’s visit to the United States; he tried to reproduce the innovations in agriculture and construction that he had been shown. These efforts proved to be a miserable failure.
Khrushchev bought seed corn from the United States and unveiled a massive corn planting campaign. But the Soviet agricultural system treated corn the way that it had wheat with disastrous results. Corn planting techniques weren’t a great mystery; but the Soviet system was a rigid bureaucracy incapable of learning anything new or adapting its methods to the task. Instead, like all bureaucracies, it tried to adapt the task to its usual methods and its ideological armor made its ignorance into a virtue.
The same thing happened with Healthcare.gov. Instead of trying to adapt the methods to the task, the system treated the construction of a website like any other policy; with rigid guidelines emerging out of constant meetings setting up an inflexible process for getting it done without actually understanding what it was that was being done.
Like the Soviet bureaucrats planting corn where it wasn’t meant to go; their American counterparts relentlessly kept spending money on a website built around their guidelines without even seeing if it worked. Like their Communist brethren, they refused to report failure up the chain of command and instead treated success as a function of their procedures… rather than of the functional outcome.
Obama, like Khrushchev, was humiliated and caught by surprise when he realized that his grand project had fallen apart. Both Socialist leaders had thought that it was enough to order their subordinates to imitate a successful free market product without understanding that it’s the production process that makes the product. Trying to imitate the product without the production process is a recipe for disaster.
To a bureaucracy, success is not defined by how much corn you grow or how many users a website can handle; but whether every proper procedure was followed in the production of the corn or the website.
For his tech surge, Obama has been forced to go outside the government bureaucracy and its crony capitalist clingers to private sector engineers. Like Lenin’s New Economy Policy or the Soviet Union’s increasingly desperate attempts at enlisting American aid to fix its agriculture; Obama has implicitly acknowledged that the ideological government he runs is unfit for the task that he has set it to.
A temporary free market fix may eventually get Healthcare.gov working again but can’t address the roots of its failure which are not in mere code; but in the bureaucratic DNA of government. A few engineers will eventually get the website working; but they can’t fix the entire broken culture behind it.
The website doesn’t matter. Healthcare.gov isn’t Facebook or Google where the service is the product. It’s meant to serve as a distribution gateway for products that have come out of the same dysfunctional bureaucratic process. Fixing Healthcare.gov isn’t like fixing Google or Facebook. It’s like fixing Amazon’s website without fixing its corporate culture, its warehouse distribution, its advertising and its products.
No matter how many Facebook or Google vets hack the Obama campaign or Healthcare.gov; they can’t fix the underlying problem with their real product… which is government bureaucracy.
Margaret Thatcher famously said that the trouble with Socialism is that eventually you run out of other people’s money. That’s the economic trouble with Socialism. The functional trouble with Socialism is that you eventually run out of the free market talent to make its projects plod along without breaking down.
Obama’s solution to everything is more government. And how is the same government process that can’t make a health care website work, going to make a health care system work?
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