A reader quotes me:
Why does Kathleen Sebelius still have her job? If this were a private company and she were responsible for rolling out a critical new product and came up with this nightmare, she wouldn’t last the week.
I have been an IT consultant for private companies that ranged in size from startups to Fortune-100 since 1998, and a smart private company would not fire someone within a week. When there is a bad product launch (and the errors I’ve seen in the CA Obamacare site are just embarrassing), the company goes into crisis mode trying to deal with major issues. When you’re in that mode, you don’t rock the boat unnecessarily. Why fire your leader and add one more complication to an already-complicated situation? I guarantee you that behind the scenes everyone is scrambling to get the exchanges to an acceptable level of functionality, and once there is a chance to take a breath, people will be held accountable. But unless Sebelius is somehow making things worse by being there, why would you fire her at this time and make a chaotic situation even worse?
Suppose she was let go, would her replacement not have to go through Congressional hearings before taking the position? How long is that going to take, and what would the effect be on HHS to be without leadership, especially NOW, for an extended time?
Another reader who takes issue with my quote:
Really? The exchanges were contracted out to private companies, CGI Group and Quality Software Services. As far as I know neither of their CEOs have resigned or been fired. Having worked in IT project management for a long time, the Obamacare glitches look pretty routine for such a complicated undertaking.
One of many more readers:
I would like to point out two parallel failures in private business that mirror the launch failure of healthcare.gov.
Last year’s Sim City 2013 and the Diablo 3 launches are great examples of digital products released to mass demand exposing deficient servers and buggy products. While these events are in the sphere of gaming culture and thus might not be “serious” enough for critical discussion both multi-million dollar products had awful launches which serve a good parallel. The individuals in charge of each of these products were not fired, in contrast to your view that private business would hold such incompetence immediately accountable. While both games ended up being disappointments, their directors were allowed to fix the problems before being shuttled off to the side.
If anything, the Obama administration is acting like a business by not removing someone who failed with a product launch, thus creating a larger PR problem, and allowing that person to remain until the problem is fixed.
The myths that surround “how business is done” and the empirical real-world examples are one of my pet peeves. Even the disastrous Apple Maps launch didn’t result in an immediate firing. It took two months and an internal power struggle to remove Scott Forstall and Richard Williamson.
Fifteen years ago I was in management at the US headquarters of a Global 500 IT company. The president wanted to roll out an new (but internal) intergalactic system for managing distribution, networks, sales forecasts, revenues, and other operations. He believed his Accenture consulting cronies when they assured him that the turn-up would go smoothly. Seamlessly! (SAP was a co-conspirator.) Little testing was done, at load or otherwise. The integrity of data went unchecked.
The company was unable to take inventory, track sales, or recognize revenue, except by hand, for over a month. Dozens of worker bees had to be flown in from the home country to count the beans. Needless to say, no one was fired.
Um, I just want to point out that all new systems have their gliches and burps and crashes. Take the iPhone 5s; it’s crashing like crazy: “iOS apps are twice as likely to crash on the new iPhone 5s as they are when running on the iPhone 5 and 5c” – so would you put this in the category of massive failure? You say “And this while the roll-out has been about as disastrous as I could have imagined…” Really? The ACA is a brand new system that’s never been done before and it crashes and you say disaster? I realize this kind of talk is not just coming from you, but really, the drama, THE DRAMA! Nobody steps back and looks at the big picture.
Another steps back:
I’m all for accountability and no fan of Kathleen Sebelius. But you’re a bit harsh in criticizing what is perhaps the most ambitious online system roll-out in the history of the internet. As I understand it, this is an enormously complex system because of all the different agencies – with their own codes, protocols, and security measures – that need to “talk to one another” through the healthcare.gov portal. And isn’t the IRS partially shutdown – I would guess that affects the portal’s ability to verify all the data it needs to check people’s subsidization levels.
In any case, this is a site with high variables, high traffic, and very scary internet security possibilities. To top it off, it was never supposed to be run mostly by the federal government! The plan was that the states would run their own exchanges, right? But too many of them decided that they didn’t actually want “states’ rights” in this instance because rights entail responsibilities, and responsibilities are hard.
And I’ll repeat what many others have said: the comparison here should not be to other quotidian online transactions, but to the previously existing open market for individual health insurance plans. Even dealing with COBRA is a huge hassle – and that was the easiest way to have individual health insurance before the Affordable Care Act.
It was reported that more people tried to sign up for this in 24 hours than in Twitter’s first 24 months. So, maybe, just maybe, take that Mental Health Break a bit early today and chill out?
Another steps back even more:
First, I want to say that I agree with you, Ezra Klein, and all the others who have been enormously critical of Healthcare.gov’s lack of functionality. I do information technology for a large healthcare nonprofit in Chicago and it has caused me and the people who actually need it nothing but problems. So I am not only disappointed but genuinely incensed at such an important program lacking such basic functionality.
I am also not surprised.
I fully believe that those in the Obama administration who were responsible for the rollout should actually live up to that responsibility. But I don’t think we should stop there. I think this speaks volumes about the process of awarding government contracts. The process to simply find a firm that is willing to do it is rough enough. Then you add in that the government usually chooses the lowest bidder, not the most qualified, which already won’t get the best results. But before you can choose the best of the lowest bids, you have to make sure that the engineers in the firm meet a myriad of federal requirements. I’m not a total anti-regulation nut (despite how it ties my hands, I still am mostly in favor of HIPAA and HITECH) but there are regulations that prohibit the best quality, especially in cases like this. And when it comes to something like a massive new healthcare initiative for the entire nation, how could you want anything but the best?
I’m sure you’ve received a bunch of emails like this one, so thanks for taking the time to read it! And keep up the good work on the blog; it’s still one of the best sites on the Internet – and it had a solid launch!