Those of you who “live” technology, whether as a programmer, systems analyst, a CTO, or someone with overall responsibility for deploying software applications both large and small can appreciate the challenges confronted by the Obama administration as it sought to successfully implement healthcare.gov last October. As we all know, that did not go well. Indeed, it sucked big time and is still a very large work in progress.
The fingers are out and pointed in all directions. But having some experience with the installation of enterprise systems—not as a technician, mind you—I can offer two takeaways from the administration’s fiasco, as chronicled in this comprehensive New York Times article.
First, it is imperative to have a systems integrator on board and in charge. Getting different applications to mesh properly is far from trivial; it requires an individual or group of individuals with prior hands-on implementation experience.
Second, and perhaps more important than the first, is to test, test, and re-test. You don’t want to encounter problems and glitches at the moment the system “goes live.”
The Obama administration, despite the significance of the Affordable Care Act in both practical and political terms, lacked the first and evidently failed to appreciate the value of the second, which it did not do. Instead, Obama himself made promises and gave assurances based on his profound ignorance of the inherent defects in healthcare.gov. He even proclaimed that shopping for insurance would be like a trip to Amazon. Not.
As I’ve written in these pages, we need presidents who view their jobs as missions of a quasi-sacred nature. Such a commitment puts family and fun at considerable distance from the task of “leading the free world,” a rather silly description, to be sure, but one that hints at the importance of the responsibilities and challenges confronting the occupants of the Oval Office. I like to believe that if Obama approached his White House position with such gravitas and sense of privilege he would have made certain that all was well with his signature legislative initiative before it launched.
Instead we got this:
HealthCare.gov, the $630 million online insurance marketplace, was a disaster after it went live on Oct. 1, with a roster of engineering repairs that would eventually swell to more than 600 items. The private contractors who built it were pointing fingers at one another. And inside the White House, after initially saying too much traffic was to blame, Mr. Obama’s closest confidants had few good answers.
Nevertheless, I suspect that the bugs will be eventually eliminated and citizens of the U.S. will be able to purchase insurance as they buy so many other things online, though the experience will fall far short of clicking a button on the Amazon website. After all, it took Jeff Bezos a couple of decades to get it right.
Amazon.com is now the world’s largest retailer, prompting a recent headline on the eve of yesterday’s Black Friday: Amazon versus everyone else. Imagine all the glitches Bezos had to overcome before delivering the most efficient shopping experience for the Rest of Us. And Bezos is as bright a computer scientist as there is, graduating Princeton summa cum laude in computer science and electrical engineering.
Obama, had he been paying attention, would have mandated a Bezos to oversee program launch. I, for one, hope that this mother of all glitches will not boost Republican fortunes in the next election. That will be a huge price to pay for keeping hands off.