A tech meltdown

imagesThis column has avoided commenting on the bureaucratic meltdown that is the Obamacare roll out, and it is tempting to keep on avoiding it. The website is, at the time of writing, more than three weeks into its launch, and still malfunctioning in some embarrassing ways. But even the most tech-savvy companies in the world have been known to miss deadlines – sometimes disastrously – and the problems with the website strike this columnist as being trivial compared to the underlying design flaws of the policy itself. If the website had worked perfectly, it is highly unlikely that enough people would have signed up to balance out the millions who are estimated to have lost their coverage thanks to the expensive mandates the Affordable Healthcare Act has imposed on insurers and employers. It is an open question whether fewer people will be insured next year than were insured last year. And the question may be open for another 15 months, so it is far too early to call the policy a failure (and even more risible to call it a success). 

Why then return to this issue now? The principles were debated three and a half years ago and the results will be seen in the coming years. Why now? Well, there has been some rather interesting commentary on The Daily Beast. The article is based on an interview with Michael  Slaby, who was Chief Integration and Innovation Officer at Obama for America, the president’s reelection campaign.

Slaby told the Beast:

“The campaign was working in an environment that was vastly more unconstrained in terms of what we could do, what technologies we could use, how we could build, how we hired people, how we procured outside help.”

It is difficult to interpret that answer as meaning anything other than that government is not set up to manage complex projects effectively. While addressing some of the technical and time constraint issue – the latter he overstates, since the deadline for this system has been known for over three years – he goes on to elaborate on problems inherent to the nature of government. Procurement procedures, for example, award contracts to companies good at getting contracts. The actual work may then be sub-contracted. He also makes the point that employees of the federal government have often been in place for a long time and are difficult to fire. 

This criticism, recall, comes from someone with substantial expertise in the field – though as regards the healthcare.gov website he is an informed outsider, not someone involved with the project – and who is strongly favorable to the president, and presumably also to his legacy legislation. 

It leaves us with a problem. If the government inherently lacks the skills to develop and manage a complex website, why should we believe that healthcare will be improved by more government regulation and control? Perhaps Slaby thinks government’s weaknesses are specific to the digital field? This has some credibility. His characterization suggests that government is a slow-moving organization, unsuited to a rapidly changing arena. But overly bureaucratic procurement procedures which award work to unsuitable contractors and an inability to manage staff would seem to be serious issues in any field. Indeed, in digital there is at least the advantage that mistakes can often be rapidly rectified.

Quentin Langley is a Senior Lecturer in Marketing at the University of Bedfordshire Business School as well as a freelance columnist published in the UK and all parts of the US. He blogs on social media and crisis communications at brandjacknews.com

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