Obamacare website failures run deeper than personnel problems

Joanne Butler Contributor
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Thank God for the World Series and football – they give us something more entertaining to watch than the legions of Democrats with their frozen grins (as if they’ve had one too many plastique procedures) numbly repeating that all is well. Reminds me of a (very young) Kevin Bacon at the end of “Animal House,” when the Faber College homecoming parade runs amok. Like Dean Wormer, President Obama is learning that indeed all is not well.

Some are calling for President Obama to fire HHS Secretary Sebelius over the enormous failure of the Obamacare website. While this would make some on the right feel good, in a practical sense this accomplishes nothing, and could make things worse.

Let’s say Sebelius finds the allure of a juicy book contract too tempting and throws in the towel. Nice for her, but bad for House-investigator-in-chief Rep. Darrell Issa and his friends, as they would be stuck with questioning a series of lower-level political appointees and civil servants who could plausibly claim no responsibility for a particular aspect of the system: ‘I don’t know why that [fill in the blank] doesn’t work, it’s not under my jurisdiction.’

Some are calling for massive ramp up in software programming – throwing more bodies at the problem. Clearly these folks are unaware of the analytics done by the iconic software engineer of the 1960s, Fredrick P. Brooks, Jr. In his seminal 1975 book, The Mythical Man-Month (which is still in print), Brooks states his ‘law’ of programming: “Adding manpower to a late software project makes it later.” He details how such emergency measures only lead to what he calls ‘regenerative schedule disaster.’

Remember that phrase, it’ll be a pithy response when someone asks you in a month or two why the Obama team still can’t get that darn website fixed.

Brooks’ insights are valuable, but he blessedly did not have to deal with politicians and lawyers when he was writing software.  And that’s where I think the Obamacare website’s troubles lie.

Retailers with easy-to-use sites like Amazon or Zappos need to have their lawyers around to verify certain things, but their lawyers aren’t at the table making design decisions. Also, Amazon, Zappos, and the rest have one simple goal: to make a profit.  Every aspect of their software systems have to be constructed to make easy to for the customer to find what he/she wants, capture the customer’s money, and send the product out in a timely and accurate manner.

What are the goals of the Obamacare website? You might think that it was to make it easy for people to shop for health insurance, but political considerations intrude at every step. Things like making it hard to do what an economist might call ‘price discovery’ for fear that consumers would be hit with sticker shock when they learned their price for health insurance was going up.

And then we have those photos of smiling faces on the website – how long did it take and how many people were involved in selecting the images? (Over to you Mr. Issa.) Was Valerie Jarrett the final decision-maker on this?

No doubt website face selection was an important task as it reflected the administration’s thinking on what Americans looked like and the target population for Obamacare. But it’s also the type of thing that can freeze a project for weeks as various factions dither about ratios of men to women and ethnic groups.

Speaking of Valerie Jarrett, I’ll bet HHS is riddled with Jarrett mini-me’s – lower-level politicals and civil servants with a back-door connection to the President’s closest advisor. These folks are at their best in meetings when they can insinuate that if the software does a certain thing, Ms. Jarrett would not be best pleased. Which ensures the process goes at one-step-forward, two-steps-back pace.

Add to the mix the bevy of lawyers who are busy writing Obamacare regulations with one hand, while the other hand is ensuring the website complies.

The result: a mess.

Only magical thinking will get us to a smooth operation by March — let alone December.

Clearly President Obama overpromised the benefits of his health care reforms – his malfunctioning website is the unavoidable evidence of this. Republicans need to make the case that Obamacare is built on meaningless promises with a price tag that’s simply unaffordable. Fortunately for them, the lousy website is their Exhibit A.