Obama shouldn’t fire anyone over the HealthCare.gov fiasco just yet

October 22, 2013
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters).
Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

The knives are out in the wake of the Affordable Care Act's Web site fiasco, with increasing calls for heads to roll.

In particular, Republicans in Congress are saying Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius should be let go in the wake of the bungled technology rollout. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) has said "we need new leadership" of the department. Rep. Bill Johnson (R-Ohio) said Monday that Sebelius should "absolutely" get canned. "It starts at the top," he told Fox News.

And while traditional advocates of the White House aren't naming names, some are admitting the Web site's problems should lead to personnel changes. Former White House spokesman Robert Gibbs said on MSNBC last week that "I hope they fire some people that were in charge of making sure that this thing was supposed to work." The Post's Ezra Klein wrote that "the full extent of the disaster was either obscured or ignored. Heads should roll for that. Changes should be made because of that."

It's understandable why there's such outrage. The HealthCare.gov roll-out has been an unqualified mess. With years to prepare for its launch, mixed messages on the reason for the problems and warning signs the marketplace had big issues, a failure of this magnitude is truly unsettling. One of the cornerstones of good leadership is accountability, and before this is over, the president will need to demonstrate how much he expects it. This is his signature piece of legislation, he just waged war with Republicans to defend it, and getting it right is not just a political achievement—it affects the health care of millions.

But immediately putting heads on the chopping block isn't necessarily right, either. Letting Sebelius go now could make it look like Obama is caving to Republican demands. Never mind that if he did so, he could very well be attacked for trying to pin the blame elsewhere. As Dave Weigel writes at Slate, sending Sebelius packing might "create the impression that one firing could right the program, like swapping out generals in Iraq kind-of-sort-of-won that war." This is a problem of epic proportions that includes 55 contractors, millions of lines of code and a requirement that the computer systems of multiple agencies as well as private insurers work together. It's not immediately clear who else, working within the government's existing bureaucracy and dealing with the project's underfunding, would have excelled at the job.

Moreover, firing someone in short order puts the focus on what went wrong rather than what needs to be done to fix it. Temporarily, at least, the president would be better served by providing more details about the people he's bringing in to lead this "tech surge" of private sector experts than by focusing on the past. (And Tuesday afternoon he did just that, naming former budget official and incoming director of the National Economic Council Jeffrey Zients to help manage the challenging task.)

Ultimately someone—or more likely, several people—will need to be held accountable for the problems. But let's wait to hear what the project's leaders have to say in Congressional testimonies. Then, it will be the right time for the president to summon his deliberateness and take action to show such a bungling won't happen again.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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