October 29, 2013


The White House frequently weighed in on items such as the user interface of the website or various policy details, but it didn’t appear much interested in the information-technology portion. The policy staff sat in their office in Bethesda drawing up a logical, incredibly detailed road map for the rollout, which they then mailed off to the IT folks. The IT folks subcontracted out whatever orders they were given, but they apparently did not do a good job of communicating their growing sense of dread to the rest of the people involved in this massive project. And so the White House merrily went around giving presentations — consisting of some screenshots enlivened with interactive features — that implied the new website would work just like Travelocity for health insurance.

The yawning gap between what the IT people knew and what everyone else seems to have realized is staggering. Now, I’ve worked on some projects in which the business units seemed to have some sort of selective deafness that only materialized when we tried to tell them that they couldn’t have their magic fairy computer system that did everything they could imagine, only better, in the three months they wanted it to take, or for the paltry sum that they were willing to spend. And I learned the hard way not to assume that the business units, or even the chief information officer, had heard and understood what you said. That is how I became gifted in the art of writing CYA memos when I was directed to do the unwise or the impossible. So I do have some sympathy for the IT folks.

But I’ve never seen a gap this complete — one in which the entire IT organization seems to have been panicking about the impossibility of their task, and then the inevitable failures, while the folks issuing the orders were blithely issuing last-minute change orders and telling everyone they could find how swell this was all going to be. Usually, when things are going this wrong, you do more than casually mention it; you sit the folks on the business side down and explain that unless the project is pushed back, it’s going to be an unmitigated disaster.

Someone, somewhere pretty high up in the food chain must have understood that the website could not be ready on time and would not do what the political folks were promising. That person failed to communicate not only the unlikelihood of making the Oct. 1 start date, but also the extent of the problems that would follow if they opened anyway. The policy and political staffs genuinely seem to have been expecting a few weird errors and a little bit of downtime, not a computer system that failed at pretty much every step.

There’s been some talk in the blogosphere recently about whether this calls the liberal project into question. I think that’s going a bit far, but I do think it calls into question the competency of President Barack Obama’s technocrats.

And the guy who hired ’em.

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