Politics

03.05.14

Even the Most Powerful Man in the World Is at the Mercy of the IT Guy

Obamacare is just one example of the risks facing politicians who oversee major tech projects.

Pouring concrete is so old-fashioned. Politicians who once had to cope with debacles like Boston’s Big Dig are now faced with a whole new set of potential infrastructure fiascos as governments rush to build websites and try to keep pace with the Internet age.

The murkiness of cyberspace, moreover, presents a huge challenge to oversight and new risks to those in charge. It’s a lot harder for officials to to keep tabs on code-writers or would-be hackers than to monitor whether a tunnel has been dug or track has been laid. And yet, as the disastrous Oct. 1 debut of Healthcare.gov illustrated definitively, there can be political hell to pay if they're out of the loop.

Though hardly the first technology project to end up embarrassing, infuriating and terrifying those responsible for making it work, HealthCare.gov has transformed technology into a tool in every strategist’s arsenal. In its scale and visibility, its long build of anticipation, its potential to fundamentally affect lives and its role in fueling the caustic rhetoric of the past few years, it is sending a message politicians can’t ignore: Failure is all too possible, and they really don’t want to have to deal with the consequences of that.

In its final month of open enrollment, signups on the Obamacare insurance site are brisk and memories of its ignominious birth are fading. But the legacy of its chaotic launch is already evident in campaigns across the country. It’s a rare day that Florida Democrats aren’t blasting Republican Gov. Rick Scott for a “bungled” unemployment compensation website. Web troubles are also prominent in campaigns against the governors of Oregon and South Carolina. And in Maryland, the governor’s presidential prospects and the lieutenant governor’s hopes to rise to governor could be undercut by a health insurance site that’s so flawed it’s under investigation and may have to be scrapped.

“Campaigns have always gone after incumbents when there’s a perception that they’ve misused public funds or abused public trust. Technology now becomes part of that story line,” says Republican strategist Michael Turk, a technology expert.

Competence is another battlefront for leaders trapped in tech nightmares, as they struggle with the original problem and then have to cope with the aftermath. “The perception is that if you can’t get that right, can you get anything right?” says a veteran Democratic strategist. “It’s so visible and so fraught with peril. Everyone can wrap their heads around a computer glitch.”

Tech failures are a standard feature of today’s public and private sectors, from a mail outage at Yahoo to security breaches at Target, Michaels craft stores, the South Carolina Department of Revenue and a community college in Arizona. The Pentagon has pursued multiple tech projects that haven’t panned out. The Internal Revenue Service conceded in 1997 that it had spent $4 billion to develop a modern computer system that would not work. Turk says he learned within days of joining the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in 2003 that the agency had spent $800,000 on a technology study that concluded OMB already had the system it needed. “I watched the government squander a ridiculous amount of money on technology,” he says.

What happens in the bowels of the bureaucracy is one thing; a high-profile website designed for consumers, however, is quite another. The political dangers mount along with the number of people affected and the level of controversy involved . It can be especially dangerous for politicians who have sold themselves to voters as technocrats able to oversee these types of projects, or who have special expertise in the policies involved. President Obama’s high-tech campaigns identified him as a leader for the information age, for instance. Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley has a national reputation as a data-based manager. And Oregon Gov. John Kitzhaber is a doctor who should know health care. The result in all three cases is a chasm between image and performance that magnifies the narrative of dashed expectations.

O’Malley delegated oversight of the Maryland exchange to Lt. Gov. Anthony Brown, his political heir, no doubt counting on it to be a stellar resume entry for Brown. Instead it has provided an endless supply of ammunition to Brown’s Democratic primary opponent, Doug Gansler, as leaders and contractors step down or are forced out, lawsuits are filed and investigations commence. “Still No Sign of Lt. Governor Brown’s Self-Professed Leadership on Maryland’s Health Exchange” was a recent and typical headline on a Gansler press release. No sign of O’Malley’s vaunted management skills, either. The governor, who cannot run for a third term due to term limits, says “you can’t define an administration by one or two shortcomings.” But the issue will certainly come up if he runs for president.

The Oregon health insurance website remains unfinished and beset by so many problems that people still can’t sign up online on their own. State Rep. Dennis Richardson, a Republican candidate for governor, blames Kitzhaber’s “gross lack of oversight” for the dysfunction. Last month he launched a petition drive to collect signatures for a federal audit. 

Tech snafus are also part of Democratic offensives against two Republicans running for reelection this year. In South Carolina, Gov. Nikki Haley is defending her handling of a 2012 data breach that exposed records of 6.4 million taxpayers against the claim of Democratic challenger Vince Sheheen’s that it reflects “a pattern of incompetence  and a culture of secrecy” in her administration. In Florida, Democratic challenger Charlie Crist has accused Scott of “outright deception” in how he handled a troubled $63 million website that delayed many unemployment checks for weeks. Democrats are now going after Scott for his administration’s hiring of Deloitte, the contractor that built the problematic jobless site, to create a Medicaid eligibility site.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-FL., asked the Department of Labor this month to investigate “possible waste, fraud or abuse” in the unemployment compensation site. Other lawmakers have asked federal authorities to investigate the Oregon and Maryland health insurance websites. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md., says he wants to know more about why Maryland’s exchange failed before the federal government throws good money after bad. Weak oversight, inadequate contractors and flawed procurement procedures are potential trouble spots, he said in an interview. Whatever the findings, he added, there will be political ramifications. “You have to take the blame when something fails,” Harris said. “I think that people were willing to prematurely take credit for success because they didn’t understand the complexity of these problems.”

Politics is not geared toward long-term thinking—far from it—but that is what complicated tech projects require. Consultant Victoria Grady, who teaches in the technology management masters program at Georgetown University, says people at her talks often ask what they should do if they have the money they need for information technology but they don’t have the money for managing it. “My response is that you don’t have the money NOT to manage these projects. If you don’t, you’re going to be looking at a massive failure in the long run,” she says. And whatever you do, she adds, don’t rush. From the standpoint of both perception and performance, “it’s more important to get it right than to get it out there.”

Patience, like long-range thinking, is not a hallmark of our political times. Still, healthcare.gov was a giant wake-up call. If that memorable launch didn’t make the definitive case for hands-on management and slow, deliberate, even delayed rollouts, nothing will.