D.C. region fails to excel as it should on projects like Md. health exchange, Silver Line

Robert McCartney
Columnist April 5

As home to the federal government, the Washington region ought to pride itself on carrying out major public projects on time, on budget and of the highest quality.

What better way to demonstrate that government, our area’s principal employer, can be effective?

Robert McCartney’s column on local issues appears Thursdays and Sundays in The Post’s Metro section. View Archive

Sadly, the recent fiascoes with Maryland’s health insurance exchange and Metro’s Silver Line have instead cheered the tea party by appearing to demonstrate — again — that government can do nothing right.

The criticism isn’t entirely fair. In both cases, contractors hired by state or local agencies were responsible for many of the screw-ups.

But government was ultimately responsible. Elected officials and senior bureaucrats failed to exercise sufficient oversight and, in some instances, gave vague or contradictory instructions.

They have wasted millions of dollars of taxpayers’ money. They have forced citizens to wait needlessly to get health insurance (in Maryland) or a Metro ride (in Virginia).

Our region’s authorities should meet a higher standard and set a better example.

They don’t have a good excuse for either debacle. Experts on government performance said the problems seemed typical. Both projects suffered from fractured lines of authority and accountability as well as poor management of contractors.

A root cause is that the politicians at the peak of the command structure are not there by virtue of their management abilities. Administrative prowess seldom wins elections.

“You get people chosen not because they are particularly effective leaders or managers, but because they are politically astute, they are great fundraisers or they are communicators,” said Max Stier, president of the Partnership for Public Service.

The solution is to ensure that elected officials appoint top administrators capable of implementing the politicians’ plans.

“It’s having political leaders who understand the importance of nuts and bolts,” Donald Kettl, dean of the University of Maryland’s School of Public Policy, said.

“Where we so often fall down, people at the top in the public sector pay relatively little attention to what it’s actually going to take to make the programs work that they create,” Kettl said.

The failure in Maryland was especially severe. Although we still don’t have a full picture of what went wrong, we know that top state officials ignored repeated warnings that deadlines were not being met as the insurance exchange Web site was under construction.

Months before the exchange’s scheduled launch on Oct. 1, two contractors were openly feuding. A consultant expressed strong concerns that no one was in charge.

The site crashed on the first day and has not worked well since. After spending more than $125 million, the state decided last week to scrap the existing exchange and replace it with one based on technology that Connecticut has used successfully.

“Maryland’s story includes decisions we wish we could make again, failures by multiple vendors and too many IT frustrations to count,” Maryland Health Secretary Joshua Sharfstein told a congressional oversight committee Thursday.

Split responsibility was a major culprit. Three state officials jockeyed for control in Annapolis, and the state had to meet federal requirements.

“It’s hard to establish accountability when there are different people in charge at different times,” said Gary Claxton, a vice president and health-care marketplace expert at the Kaiser Family Foundation.

“There was certainly inadequate time for testing, and some of it had to do with the fact that decision-making was shared,” Claxton said. “People were waiting for other people to do stuff before they could finish what they were doing.”

With the Silver Line, the government’s principal mistake appears to have been inadequate oversight of the private consortium, led by construction giant Bechtel, which built the transit line’s first phase, extending to Reston.

The line was supposed to begin service late last year, but there’s still no date for completing it. Numerous safety and other problems have arisen. Those include the need to replace a communications cable and hundreds of station loudspeakers that don’t meet fire code.

Kate Hanley — a former chair of the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors and a former Metro board member — expressed frustration that using a private partner for design and construction had not prevented the difficulties.

“This was supposed to be the way to be speedier, cheaper and more efficient,” Hanley said. “I’m stunned with how many things they’re finding and how long it’s taking to fix it.”

Politicians, learn these lessons.

Nobody stands to benefit more than the Washington region from proving that the public sector can be efficient and effective.

For previous columns, go to washingtonpost.com/mccartney.

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