For the first five years of President Barack Obama’s presidency, the administration has been almost universally lauded for its unprecedented political-technical savvy. Obama and his team “got” social media in ways that other campaigning politicians did not, embracing every platform from YouTube to Tumblr; the Obama for America re-election group was celebrated for mastering the intersection of big data and on-the-ground organizing in its victory over Mitt Romney in 2012.
Now it appears that the Obama tech apparatus has a bug. On Monday morning, President Obama took to the Rose Garden to discuss technology problems: specifically, the various glitches bogging down HealthCare.gov, which for many Americans is the online entry to Obamacare. “The website has been too slow,” he conceded, among other things. “People have been getting stuck during the application process. And I think it’s fair to say that nobody’s more frustrated by that than I am."
from the iPresidency. The HealthCare.gov site launched October 1, and while the early reports of technical failings were overshadowed by the debt ceiling drama, those failings didn’t go away along with the temporary government shutdown. Just Sunday, in fact, the Department of Health and Human Services announced it’s bringing in the “best and brightest from both inside and outside government” to help resolve problems users are having creating accounts and logging in, as well as “slow page loads,” “confusing error messages” and so on. The announcement called this new plan a “tech surge” — a phrase that, intentionally or not, calls to mind the military “surge” credited with saving the Iraq War from total disaster.It was a striking admission of technical incompetence
But as with Iraq, you can’t help but wonder: What took so long? Bringing in the “best and brightest” tech minds sounds like an excellent thing to do — before launch.
Instead, HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius suggested during the initial glitch period that we were witnessing mere hiccups — nothing more dramatic than the kinks that need smoothing with every routine iOS update. Three weeks later, nobody except gleeful conservatives in attack mode is comparing the Obamacare site to an iPhone. In fact, it’s getting easier every day for opponents to spin it as more of a Newton.
That “tech surge” announcement reiterated the defense that HealthCare.gov is partly a victim of its own success — the site has had “19 million unique visits to date,” it reports, as if softening us up for an investment pitch. But this is not a hot social media property whose growing pains can eventually be repackaged as proof of popularity on the IPO roadshow some day.
And rhetoric aside, we remain largely in the dark about the “metrics,” as they say, that matter most. “We've already heard so many stories of individuals getting health insurance for the first time,” that HHS announcement says. Oh? How many? And who are these "best and brightest" new minds, anyway? And what’s the timetable for this “surge”?
Technology is hard.— harper (@harper) October 21, 2013
It’s plausible that the site is partly a victim of its own success — and I certainly hope it’s plausible that the mysterious Special Coding Forces can save the day, soon. But three weeks in, it’s time for this supposedly tech-savvy administration to recognize the value of transparency, and tell us how it’s going to keep a bunch of frustrating glitches from culminating in a Blue Screen of Death for a major government initiative.
Meanwhile, if things aren’t going to improve quickly, maybe the overseers of HealthCare.gov should at least hack together a way to make the glitches more palatable. Surely we have the resources to convene a blue-ribbon Fail Whale task force?