The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Is Obamacare’s ‘tech surge’ real?

On Sunday, the Department of Health and Human Services announced a major "tech surge" to save the health-care exchanges. "Our team is bringing in some of the best and brightest from both inside and outside government to scrub in with the team and help improve," they promised.

This is exactly what most everyone wanted to hear: The Silicon Valley cavalry is riding to the rescue.

But in the days since, the White House has been extraordinarily secretive about who, exactly, is involved in this surge. On Tuesday, Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius offered the first name, saying she'd brought "Jeff Zients on board to work in close cooperation with our HHS team to provide management advice and counsel."

Who is Jeff Zients? He's a successful management consultant who was President Obama's first "chief performance officer," then the acting director of the Office of Management and Budget, and is now going to replace Gene Sperling as head of the National Economics Council. He is, in other words, a White House insider and an excellent manager. But he's not the Silicon Valley cavalry. He's not who anyone thought of when they heard "tech surge."

Sebelius also announced that the surge would include "a handful of Presidential Innovation Fellows," along with "additional experts and specialists drawn from within government, our contractors, and industry, including veterans of top Silicon Valley companies," and "additional staff and commitments from our contractors, including CGI, the lead firm responsible for the federally facilitated marketplace technology."

And that' The White House has refused requests to name the outsiders they've brought in, to name the companies that are involved and to explain how the surge is being organized. It's thus impossible to say what the surge actually is or how it's working.

It's easy to imagine reasons for their reticence. They don't want reporters to know where to go for further leaks. They don't want people who are donating their time to come under political pressure, or appear to bear responsibility if the site isn't fixed, or simply to be bothered by a lot of outside inquiry and scrutiny when they should be fixing code.

But it's also possible that the scope of the surge is less impressive, and more insider-focused, than the administration is implying. That might actually be a smart move if you take a "mythical man month" view of the problem. On the other hand, that would also mean that the White House is largely relying on the people who did such a poor job building in the first place to fix it.