The bar­rier be­tween the geeks and the suits

Oba­macare reprises fa­mil­iar busi­ness mis­takes

The Washington Times Daily - - Nation - By Suzanne Fields

Ed­ward Snow­den’s stolen se­crets and the dis­mal fail­ure of the roll­out of Oba­macare is giv­ing elec­tronic tech­nol­ogy a bad name. But blam­ing hightech tools is more of blam­ing the mes­sen­ger. We have to work harder to mas­ter the se­crets of the In­ter­net, but the hu­man el­e­ment re­mains our big­gest weak­ness.

It’s hardly news that the screen­ing process for giv­ing Snow­den sen­si­tive data was deeply flawed. So, too, were the in­struc­tions to the Na­tional Se­cu­rity Agency (NSA) that en­abled abuse of the rest of us. For what­ever good in­ten­tions the NSA might have had, the snoops cost Amer­ica the moral high ground in deal­ing with the evil abun­dant in the world. We’ve let Vladimir Putin, the old KGB hand, give a civil-rights lec­ture to the pres­i­dent of the United States.

Ger­man Chan­cel­lor An­gela Merkel, one of Amer­ica’s best friends among the Euro­peans, is more than em­bar­rassed by Snow­den’s rev­e­la­tions. Ger­mans are sen­si­tive to their Gestapo-Stasi past, and they’re read­ing Snow­den’s self-serv­ing open let­ter in Der Spiegel jus­ti­fy­ing his leaks as if he’s a rein­car­na­tion of Tom Paine. The cit­i­zens, Snow­den writes, “have to fight against the sup­pres­sion of in­for­ma­tion about af­fairs of es­sen­tial im­por­tance for the pub­lic.” Snow­den now has a job with a large Rus­sian web­site. If this is bad news for Barack Obama, it’s more than in­ter­est­ing news for Mr. Putin.

The fail­ure of the elec­tronic tools for mak­ing Oba­macare ac­ces­si­ble to those who are re­quired to use it poses a dif­fer­ent prob­lem. Amer­ica, which led in in­vent­ing the In­ter­net, has nev­er­the­less fallen be­hind the curve in the high-tech world de­liv­er­ing gov­ern­ment ser­vices, and this goes to the heart of why big gov­ern­ment couldn’t get the Oba­macare roll­out right. A White House that doesn’t know much about busi­ness, and sneers at those who do, com­pounded the fail­ure.

In a 2010 memo that is only now get­ting at­ten­tion, David Cut­ler, who worked for Mr. Obama as a health care ad­viser, warned the pres­i­dent and his ad­min­is­tra­tion that it lacked the cru­cial in­gre­di­ents for the suc­cess­ful im­ple­men­ta­tion of the health care law, which needed men and women with ex­pe­ri­ence in com­plex busi­ness star­tups, ba­sic reg­u­la­tions, tech­nol­ogy and pol­icy co­or­di­na­tion.

This is not a prob­lem unique to Mr. Obama, but the com­mu­nity or­ga­nizer was par­tic­u­larly vul­ner­a­ble with his lack of ba­sic busi­ness skills. He should have chan­neled the late Ge­orge McGovern, who once told me that one of his great­est re­grets was that when he was first a se­na­tor and then a can­di­date for pres­i­dent he knew so lit­tle about run­ning a busi­ness and how so many reg­u­la­tions hob­bled in­no­va­tors and en­trepreneurs be­cause they ig­nored the re­al­i­ties of the mar­ket. “Those who wrote the laws didn’t know what they were do­ing,” he said. He learned the hard way when he re­tired from pol­i­tics, bought an inn in Con­necti­cut and soon went bank­rupt.

Tech­nol­ogy to­day com­pounds the dif­fi­cul­ties for star­tups with what econ­o­mist Arnold Kling calls the “suits-geek di­vide.” It’s a prob­lem he thinks specif­i­cally af­flicts Oba­macare.

“In my ex­pe­ri­ence, com­mu­ni­ca­tion fail­ures be­tween tech­ni­cal staff and man­age­ment re­flect an at­mos­phere of fear and lack of mu­tual re­spect,” he says. He asks his high school eco­nom­ics stu­dents pre­sent­ing pro­pos­als to start a new busi­ness two ques­tions: “What are the crit­i­cal man­age­ment func­tions, and what would some­body ex­pe­ri­enced in this busi­ness know that you do not know?”

If the pres­i­dent and Kath­leen Se­be­lius, the sec­re­tary of Health and Hu­man Ser­vices, were in his class propos­ing the world’s largest insurance bro­ker­age, he would ex­pect them to know such man­age­ment func­tions as mar­ket­ing, cus­tomer ed­u­ca­tion, insurance com­pany part­ner­ships, pric­ing and un­der­writ­ing stan­dards, and op­er­a­tions. Some­one with busi­ness ex­pe­ri­ence would un­der­stand that prob­lems run deeper than sim­ply set­ting up a web­site. Suc­cess­ful ne­go­ti­a­tion and co­or­di­na­tion be­tween sys­tems of the gov­ern­ment and the insurance com­pa­nies re­quire an ex­ec­u­tive with au­thor­ity to go to the top with­out feel­ing in­tim­i­dated to sug­gest changes.

Mr. Obama’s pub­lic per­for­mances of­fer clues to his be­hind-the-scenes man­age­ment style, re­veal­ing a self­ap­pointed “vi­sion” man who stands above it all un­til he meets the pub­lic as seller-in-chief. Mrs. Se­be­lius sug­gests that she didn’t know the right ques­tions to ask her con­trac­tors, and didn’t make sure there was clear and ef­fec­tive co­or­di­na­tion be­tween the tech­ni­cal staff (the geeks) and the busi­ness staff (the suits). She was not amused when some­one gave her a copy of the fa­mil­iar com­puter ref­er­ence man­ual “Web Sites for Dum­mies.”

On a sys­tems project as big as Oba­macare, you’re in a heap of trou­ble if you have to re­visit the dy­nam­ics be­tween the geeks and the suits af­ter the roll­out. “They’re try­ing to change a tire on a car go­ing 70 miles an hour down the ex­press­way,” says Rep. Mike Rogers of Michi­gan (who’s a con­gress­man and not a coiner of metaphors). A more likely metaphor is a car with a dead bat­tery.

ILLUSTRATION BY HUNTER

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