October 25, 2013

Today’s briefing from Health and Human Services on the ongoing problems at Healthcare.gov made a fair amount of news, with the administration spelling out a plan to get everything fixed by the end of November.

Political scientist David Hopkins responded: “My guess: today’s ACA briefing (with 11/30 deadline promise) was designed to calm down Dems in Congress, keep them off ‘delay mandate’ boat.”

I think that’s fair, but I think there’s another way of looking at it.

First step: Problems show up, and the level of complaints is severe enough that word comes down from the top — do something!

Second step: Department looks for a way of demonstrating that it’s doing something, hits on sensible idea of a daily briefing for reporters.

Third step: Reporters actually demand substance out of hastily scheduled daily briefing, begin to mock the department for briefings packed with spin, not substance.

Fourth step: Department looks for substantive announcements (and more honest assessment of the problems) in order to keep daily briefings from devolving into bad jokes.

Now, granted, everyone involved on the government side almost certainly really does want to fix the problem. But there’s a difference between normal, regular, bureaucratic wanting to fix problems and a serious crisis problem-fixing mode.

This reminds me of the “shake the trees” strategy that Bill Clinton used in order to derail the Millenium Plot in 1999. The idea was that everyone, in multiple agencies, knew not only that the president was putting a high priority on the issue, but that there were daily scheduled meetings in which Cabinet secretaries needed to report what they were doing to stop the plot. Which therefore meant that the top people in those departments needed to report to the secretary what was being done so the secretary would have something to report, which in turn meant that people had to actually do things so that the underlings would have something to report to the secretary, who would have something to report to the president. It’s not that, without this procedure, people whose job it was to fight terrorism would have been indifferent to the threat; it’s just that it often takes realigning institutional incentives to get a bureaucracy to get anything done.

The same is likely true here. It’s not that the folks at HHS were indifferent to getting the Web site up and working on time; it’s just that there’s a very good chance that the entire process wasn’t as effective as it could be with more presidential attention. And, yes, that means that Barack Obama likely personally deserves a share of the blame for what’s happened so far. But presidenting is hard; Obama also had to be involved personally on Syria, and on the budget, and on all sorts of other things. The point here isn’t so much about blame (although there is that), but about how government works.

At least, that’s my guess for what’s going on; Jonathan Chait reminds us that everyone involved could still be fooling themselves (or worse!).