Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

Secrecy leads to ignorance

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The problem with keeping things secret from everyone is that you are deprived of useful input. President Obama, despite his talk of “transparent” and “open” has in practice greatly increased the secrecy of our government, as we daily learn. And now, I think, that approach has backfired badly: the incredibly poor implementation of Healthcare.gov would, in times past, been a breaking story months ago: whistleblowers would have been talking to the press about their frustrations and the lack of closure and the impossibility of implementing in the timeframe left with the specifications incomplete, and so on. Those stories would have hit the press, and Obama would have realized from reading them that the reports he was undoubtedly getting up the chain of command were misleadingly optimistic—and not through any desire to deceive. At every level from coder to Kathleen Sebelius,, including all the project team leaders and their managers and their managers, there are filters: managers don’t report to their bosses the problems that the managers believe they can fix. No one wants to report that he is not able to solve a problem, and moreover bosses push back: “You solve that problem, and fast—think outside the box, and do more with less. Work smarter, not harder,” and so on. So the simmering problem doesn’t make its way to the top because at every level people are determined to solve the problem and not bother their boss.

But with a whistleblower, the early problems are leaked, everyone up the entire chain reads about the problems in the Washington Post, and very quickly the problems are addressed.

That didn’t happen with Healthcare.gov. Secrecy was maintained, no one knew what was happening, and now it’s a mess.

From a report by Amy Goldsteini in the Washington Post:

“Unfortunately, the experience on HealthCare.gov has been frustrating for many Americans,” HHS officials said in a blog post Sunday afternoon, acknowledging what has been obvious to millions of insurance seekers who live in the three dozen states relying on the federal exchange. For the first time, the administration appealed to people to report their interactions, good or bad, with the exchange, a core element of the 2010 health-care law.

Emphasis added. I can’t believe that didn’t build feedback into the system.

Also from that article:

The remarks Sunday, and Obama’s expected comments Monday, represent a slight strategic shift for an administration that has repeatedly refused to say publicly exactly what is wrong with the site or what is being done to fix it. The new tack offers a bit more information while allowing officials to strike a sympathetic tone toward consumers exasperated by their experiences.

Even now, administration officials are declining to disclose many details about the debugging effort. They will not say how many experts — whom they describe as “the best and the brightest” — are on the team, when the team began its work or how soon the site’s flaws might be corrected. Still, in talking about the repairs, administration officials for the first time conceded that the site’s problems extend beyond well-publicized front-end obstacles, such as with setting up a personal account.

Since the exchange opened, officials at the White House and HHS had until now insisted that the site’s problems were caused primarily by its popularity — that more people were trying to get on than could be accommodated at once. Even Sunday, the HHS spokesman said the “main driver of the problems is volume.”

Yet insurance companies, consumers and health policy experts have noticed problems that occur further along in the process of using the exchange. The Web site sometimes gives inaccurate information about the federal tax credits that will help most people pay for a health plan, they say. And it sometimes erroneously tells low-income people that they are not eligible for Medicaid.

Note that the Obama Administration is still trying for secrecy — a modified limited hangout is all they can bring themselves to do. I think it would have been smarter and more efficient to go an open-source route so that more eyes could look at the problems and more people contribute to the success.

Secrecy can screw things up badly, as we see. When an organization is determined to keep everything secret from “outsiders,” often those in charge of the organization are similarly kept in the dark, just not so much. But generally some disaster will reveal what has been going on.

UPDATE: Ezra Klein has a brief report in the Washington Post, which repeats the obvious question: If they’re putting the “best and brightest” on the project to fix it, who was on it before?

One thing we know:

The key coordinator — which not only oversaw CGI Federal but all the other contractors building the site — was the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, and in particular, their IT department. But CMS didn’t have the technological expertise to carry out this role — and they still don’t.

Someone decided that that CMS would play the role of coordinator (instead of hiring a company with relevant experience in coordinating massive software projects—e.g., IBM). Who was that person? Who made that decision? That would be interesting to know, but the secrecy of the Administration protects the person, who will doubtless go on to make other ill-founded decisions.

Written by Leisureguy

21 October 2013 at 12:00 pm

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