Okay. I’ve never worked as a tech geek, so I’m speculating from ignorance here. Some of you can probably speak with more authority. Perhaps we’ll hear from the reliably acerbic and insightful Doctor Memory, who knows whereof he speaks on this subject (and several others). But to my uneducated eye, it appears that Arnold Kling has got this pretty much dead-on right: The Obamacare mess “is not a technical screw-up, and it will not be fixed by technical people. It is an organizational screw-up.”
What you had here, among other things (and almost of this is paraphrasing Kling) is:
- A bunch of people who had never worked in the insurance business appointing themselves executive officers of the world’s largest insurance brokerage.
- Nobody at the top with the authority to trim features as needed to keep the project manageable.
- No mechanism for the technical staff to challenge the managers, because all of the management decisions were essentially set in stone before the technical staff — i.e. the outside contractors — came on board.
- No clear lines of authority and acceptability.
Private enterprises frequently fail, often for one or more of these reasons. But sometimes they succeed, and that’s largely because sometimes they get this stuff right. The government, by contrast, has no mechanism for getting it right. The people at the top are not industry experts, the features are largely determined by the legislative process, which takes place with absolutely no feedback from the tech geeks who are going to have to implement it, the political system pretty much forces you to put the technical part of the project out for bid and to parcel it out among multiple contractors, eliminating any possibility of ongoing negotiation between the managers and the techies, and on top of all that, nobody’s livelihood is on the line.
These are not problems with Obamacare per se; they are problems with large-scale complex government-run enterprises in general. These are the reasons why many writers, including me, were extremely skeptical from the outset that Obamacare could be made to work well. It’s true that none of us (as far as I know) was prescient enough to predict that the website would be a particular point of failure. (Edited to add: Actually, it looks like Megan McArdle was out front on this.) But I think that foreseeing big problems, and foreseeing the reasons for those problems, still counts as prescience.
If you’re tempted to respond that plenty of large-scale complex government-run enterprise work just fine, please provide examples. If your example is Medicare, consider first that an enterprise on the verge of bankruptcy is not typically regarded as “working just fine”. You might want to make a case that government-run programs should be judged not by their financial health, but by their impact on social welfare — and I would agree with you. But I’d still ask for evidence that Medicare works “just fine” by any standard.
Kling has a lot more to say about where it is and isn’t possible to go from here, and it’s all worth reading. Once again, the link is here.