This morning I was reading stories about Marilyn B. Tavenner, the head of the federal government’s health insurance marketplace, apologizing.
She was apologizing for the government’s web site operating so badly.
And in fact, I tried to get on starting Oct. 1, but couldn’t. I don’t need to sign up for insurance through the government exchange because I’m covered here at work, but I wanted to see if I could just because I’m a nosy journalist.
For weeks, I have been trying. For weeks, I have been unable to get a login.
It got so bad that Saturday Night Live spoofed Obamacare. Kathleen Sebelius, when the, ahem, liberal-leaning writing staff of SNL goes after their favorite president’s HHS secretary, you know you’ve messed up.
But after seeing the Tavenner story, I tried to get on the site one more time. And what do you know, it created a login and everything. So that’s something.
Healthcare.gov is pretty unremarkable, but I’d trade functional for bells and whistles.
It is no mystery why the federal government messed up a web site that it knew it had to have ready since March 2010, when the Affordable Care Act was signed into law by President Obama.
You will hear a lot of explanations about the myriad of contractors working on it, and the complexity of the task of exchanging lots of information back and forth across many servers, and large numbers of people trying to get on the site at once.
The answer is, however, simple. In the private sector, if a company messes up like this, chances are it could go out of business. The prospect of corporate death powerfully focuses organizations. Key people lie awake night, unable to sleep. There is a sense of urgency. Really bad things can happen if there is a IT disaster.
The government can’t go out of business, no matter how bad it fouls up. This is good if you work in the government and you enjoy a restful night’s sleep. This is not so good if you are a citizen depending on government being competent.
And the fact that Gov. Sebelius still has a job and Marilyn Tavenner still is employed suggests that you can really, really mess up with no consequences if your employer is the federal government.
Ultimately, President Obama had the responsibility for making sure that his folks could build a working health care web site in 3.5 years. Last November, before the presidential election, I put up a blog post that said this:
“Anyone who has worked in a company knows that the organizational world divides into two kinds of people. The people who talk a good game, and the people who actually deliver. I believe that if I were Gov. Romney's boss and I assigned him a big project, that he would get it done without me having to keep him focused and on track. Deadlines would be met. Things would get done the way they were supposed to be done, and he would sweat the details. And without necessarily talking my ear off about all those details he had sweated.
I don't have that confidence about President Obama. Maybe he would get it done, maybe he wouldn't. Maybe I'd hear about how the other departments or managers weren't cooperating with him. Or about subordinates he had delegated to, who hadn't gotten things done. But it wasn't his fault, mainly.
It's not necessarily just because Gov. Romney has all these management skills that President Obama doesn't. It's some of that. But it is more a sense that Gov. Romney really digs in and gets engaged, and sees obstacles and overcomes them, and knows that's just how it is. And that President Obama really likes to hold meetings and give speeches, but doesn't like the more granular and really pain-in-the-neck stuff that is often the difference between success and failure. I get the sense that Gov. Romney keeps lists and President Obama has other people keep the lists.”
Now this wasn’t an endorsement of Mitt Romney. I thought he was somewhat out of touch with the average American. But it was an acknowledgement that President Obama’s strong suit wasn’t management. Maybe he thought that because his campaign implemented voter identification technology pretty effectively, that standing up a massive health care IT project wasn’t that big a deal. Whatever. I think that healthcare.gov experience has reinforced the point that getting into the details isn’t something he’s good at. But worse, it also showed that he doesn’t seem to realize this, and so he didn’t hire the kind of people who did obsess about the details.
Given that the federal government wasn’t going out of business if Healthcare.gov was a mess, maybe that was too much to expect.