Why Obama’s tech-savvy team couldn’t make Obamacare glitch-free

As the online rollout of the Affordable Care Act continues to be plagued by glitches, many of the president's allies and foes are wondering the same thing: how could the most tech-savvy White House in history launch a flawed Web site?

Alex Howard explains how long it might take for the administration to get healthcare.gov working properly, and why the real test comes in December. (Natalie Jennings/(On Background))
Video: What will it take to fix Healthcare.gov?

There are a few reasons why it's impossible to translate the technological prowess of Obama's 2012 reelection campaign into the operation of the federal health-care exchanges. Let's examine some of them:

1. Obama's campaign team -- which included a chief technology officer as well as a chief innovation officer and a director of analytics -- could operate out of the public view. This gave them them freedom to experiment, and they also did not have the hard launch date -- Oct. 1 -- which policymakers viewed as essential to give consumers time to register in order to make the Dec. 15 cutoff date for insurance coverage starting Jan. 1.

2. The White House couldn't hire the same people who worked on the campaign. Erik Smith, president of Blue Engine Media and a consultant for both of Obama's presidential campaigns, observed that any move to award federal contracts to either current or former Obama campaign operatives would have provoked a political firestorm. "They would have gotten more criticism than they're getting now," Smith said. Now, some of the same people are involved in crafting the selling of  Obamacare -- White House strategist David Simas directed public-opinion research and polling for Obama's 2012 campaign -- but that's different from actually putting the Web site together.

3. The nuts-and-bolts of the federal exchanges fall under Health and Human Services's domain, not the White House's. While White House chief technology officer Todd Park has become the public face of the administration's effort to fix www.HealthCare.gov, he's not the person in charge of it. Park's predecessor Aneesh Chopra, who served under Obama between 2009 and 2012, said the role of the White House's chief technology officer is "really a policy adviser, you're not really responsible operationally or functionally" for agency-level initiatives.

4. Constructing a national health-care marketplace is more complicated than orchestrating voter turnout through public media. John McDonough, a health policy professor at the Harvard School of Public Health, describes the development of the online insurance marketplace that launched last week as “an enormously complex task. The number of systems that have to work together – federal, state, insurance companies, the Internal Revenue System – the number of systems that have to align here is pretty daunting."

Now, White House officials would argue that the major reason the federal health-care marketplace has experienced problems is the unanticipated volume of demand -- 8.6 million unique visitors in the first three days, with 250,000 concurrent users at one point. But it's safe to say that some folks in Obama's orbit are feeling nostalgic about last year, when their computing savvy was the envy of even their fiercest opponents.

Juliet Eilperin is The Washington Post's White House bureau chief, covering domestic and foreign policy as well as the culture of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. She is the author of two books—one on sharks, and another on Congress, not to be confused with each other—and has worked for the Post since 1998.



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