November 30, 2013

MICHAEL BARONE: Welcome to the Kludgeocracy.

How is it possible that Barack Obama did not know that his beloved healthcare.gov website was a botch? That’s a question many thoughtful people (including thoughtful Democrats) are asking.

We heard him say that he wouldn’t have boasted that it would be as easy to use as amazon.com or obitz.com had he known that it wouldn’t. I’m not “stupid enough,” he said at his Nov. 14 press conference. Most Americans agree that’s true.

One thing we do know is that this is a chief executive who does not want to hear bad news, or at least effectively discourages his subordinates from bringing it to him.

He made a decision to take the question of intervention in Syria to Congress after consulting, on a walk in the White House lawn, with his chief of staff. Any staffer with knowledge of congressional opinion on the issue could have told him that he didn’t come close to having the votes.

And it’s known that his White House counsel, Kathryn Ruemmler, learned the week of April 22 from Treasury lawyers that the Internal Revenue Service had, in her words, “improperly scrutinized several … organizations by using words like ‘Tea Party’ and ‘patriot.'”

Evidently, she didn’t tell the president, who said he learned about the scandal only when it was made public by IRS official Lois Lerner May 10. Counsels to former presidents of both parties say they would have informed their bosses immediately.

Effective executives take special pains to ferret out bad news from the organizations they command. They know that most underlings like to tell their superiors that things are going fine.

“A culture that prefers deluding the boss over delivering bad news isn’t well equipped to try new things,” writes Internet pioneer Clay Shirky on his eponymous blog. . . .

Obama knows how to use words well. But he doesn’t seem to understand how the world works. “We’re also discovering,” he said at that press conference, “that insurance is complicated to buy.” Yup.

There is a reason public policy in industrial age America (and other democratic countries) moved toward greater regimentation and standardization. Centralized command and control was a good way to run assembly lines.

There is a reason also that public policy in the information age, elsewhere and here until 2008, moved toward more market mechanisms. Central planners have a hard time anticipating how IT systems and consumers will respond.

That’s especially true when chief executive doesn’t want to hear — and perhaps cannot imagine that there will be — bad news. Welcome to the kludgeocracy.

Indeed.