Opponents of the Affordable Care Act have been among the most eager to point out the system's greatest irony: It was President Obama, who sailed into office on the back of a sophisticated digital campaign, that oversaw Healthcare.gov's botched kick-off.
How could the Obama administration have failed so publicly when his campaign spoke Internet so fluently — and would it have made any difference if OFA had been in control?
It's easy to attribute omnipotence to the Obama campaign in hindsight. Yes, the campaign had an army of data analysts and programmers at its disposal. It had a Web-centric culture. But that alone wouldn't have made building Healthcare.gov any easier. Campaigns, by their nature, have to be nimble — they're good at responding to attacks, dishing out their own and reallocating resources as a race develops.
Agility isn't a hallmark of government, however. There are requirements and regulations to follow when it comes to procurement, oversight and other pesky matters of state. And perhaps that's partly why the idea of OFA building the Obamacare site is so seductive. If only Washington operated more like a startup — if only it could move faster and break things — we might have a better insurance portal.
Yet political campaigns are geared to do one thing, and that's to win. Everybody who's involved in a campaign shares a common interest, and to the extent that their tasks vary, staffers and volunteers nevertheless operate as a team. As the president's critics often point out, however, governing is different from politicking. All agencies are supposed to work toward the common goal of providing for the public's welfare. In reality, it's a messy landscape of cross-cutting political interests and battles over pride and budgets. That makes coordination a lot more difficult. Even when the agencies themselves have agreed to cooperate, their infrastructure might not.
To function effectively, Healthcare.gov needs to talk to different computer systems concerning the IRS, Medicaid, state and local agencies, the Treasury Department and Social Security — and that's just to figure out whether a customer is eligible for insurance subsidies.
We've learned that the programmers behind the Obamacare site were being pushed to their limits. But it's not clear that throwing OFA's geeks at what amounts to a very different problem would have helped. In fact, given the learning curve associated with fixing a new problem, it might have hurt more.
Whatever you might say about CGI, the primary company assigned to build Healthcare.gov, it is at least a company whose whole reason for being involves building these types of systems. Healthcare.gov reveals how our approach to federal contracting could use some work. It also revealed to some people for the first time how complicated managing a bureaucracy can be. And that's a much bigger challenge than The Cave was ever equipped to handle.