MONTGOMERY VILLAGE, Md., November 29, 2013 – The Obama administration has promised that a better, easier to use and effective Affordable Care web site will be in operation at the end of the month of November. This suggests that on the first business day of December, those seeking health insurance will be able to navigate the web site, get quotations and hopefully for the Administration, get affordable health insurance.
The odds are that some will be happy and many others angry and frustrated.
For those that are familiar with Information Technology in the Federal Government, the process has gone very much according to script. It is not the fault of those who actually did and are still engaged in trying to make the system functional at the client (those logging in their computers to learn about health insurance and/or actually purchase it) level.
Project managers in the Federal Government are subject to the decisions of both the political appointees and the Senior Executive Managers above them. Contractors that actually do the work have to keep the project managers happy.
Back in the 1970s, a well-intentioned Jimmy Carter created the Senior Executive Service (SES) to provide for a portable group of experienced, proven and effective managers to run the Federal Government. The idea was that these exalted individuals could run any program and could be transferred to any program that needed superior management as needed. The idea was that a manager is a manager, no matter what the goals of the particular office were. The SES individuals would also be knowledgeable of the needs of the political appointees and would serve as the transition between the needs of the administration and the results desired from the workers. Cynics started calling this system the hamburger university principle.
The result was that a fairly technical or scientific office could be managed by a professional administrator or a lawyer. This shift that became predominant in the 1980s moved many technical managers into working positions and created “Technical Experts”. This has resulted in the crux of the problem. Many of these technical people left the government or retired if they were eligible.
Additionally, IT has been seen by many administrators as a necessary evil. They saw the mundane operation of communicating with machines as below their status. They also found that IT people would talk a foreign language and insisted in implementing processes that did not appear to enhance the political or administrative goals of the SES or the political appointees. Even technical workers, engineers and scientist, saw the interference of IT as undesirable. The popular analogy at the time, and probably to this day, is that one doesn’t need to know about mechanics to drive a car.
The result was that when IT offices were created, most of the staff were not IT people and they mostly just managed projects with contractors doing the work. Hiring IT professionals was not a thing that these project managers wanted, since they would probably know more about the subject and were a threat to their positions. Real IT people also tend to be somewhat antisocial and ignorant of pragmatic needs in an office.
Granted, these facts are a generalization and may not apply to the current “Obama Care website” debacle. However, for those that have worked for the Federal Government and have some knowledge of computers, it sure rings true.
Following the analogy of the car, the Federal Government was not mandated to drive a car, it was tasked to create a new one to implement the Affordable Care Act. It was apparent that they relied on the same system of ignorant managers, yes-man project managers and mercenary contractors (who would blame them?) to implement a very important program.
This fiasco should be taken as a learning opportunity by the Federal Government. For the proper management of sophisticated technical and scientific programs, a manager with superior knowledge of the subject should be chosen. On the job training or complete reliance on biased assistants will not get the job done.
The only way a contractor will present a good product is if the technology is properly evaluated and the product meets the necessary requirements. That requires knowledge on the part of management, not just good administrative practices.
Mario Salazar, the 21st Century Pacifist, is on Facebook (Mario Salazar) and Twitter (@chibcharus).
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