It is the nature of the year 2014 that our dramatic tales of urgent political scrambling and high-stakes, deadline-driven problem-solving are tales about coding websites. But they are, and Time has the story of the team of guys (basically all guys) that fixed Healthcare.gov, making it a footnote in the great war over the Affordable Care Act and paving the way for Democrats like Hillary Clinton to embrace it.
In the middle of October, it's not much of an exaggeration to say that the reputation of President Obama and the success of Obamacare hinged on that terribly developed website. It might have been premature to suggest that its failure doomed the liberal worldview for all-time, but if the website had needed to be scrapped, re-done, a delay to the implementation of Obamacare would have resulted and the still not-entirely-firm ground on which the health policy stood would have gotten much shakier.
What Steven Brill's Time article describes is the sort of quick response tech scramble that is what Silicon Valley is known for. "This is the story of a team of unknown — except in elite technology circles — coders and troubleshooters who dropped what they were doing in various enterprises across the country and came together in mid-October to save the website," Brill says at the beginning. Not all of the players came directly from the valley; at least one, having worked on the Obama 2012 campaign, came in from Chicago.
But the attitude was pure early tech start-up: figure out the problems and get the product ready to go. Figure out praise and blame later. Mikey Dickerson, who came to the effort from Google, outlined three rules once the full team was in place in "a 4,000-sq.-ft. room … in a nondescript office park in Columbia, Maryland." 1. They were there to solve problems. 2. The people talking should be those who know the most about the issue. 3. Urgent issues first.
Brill makes clear that the November 30 restart date trumpeted by HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius was more robust than it might have seemed in late October. Which itself is a reflection of the risks at play: few people were willing to give the Obama administration the benefit of the doubt when it said that the site would be fixed because, well, the administration also said it would be ready on October 1. People were ready for the site and the effort to fail. And Obama and Sebelius didn't go into detail on the extent to which they'd brought in ringers to fix the site, perhaps worried that revealing the extent of their scramble would further undermine confidence and make the wreckage from another failure all that more widespread.
By Christmas, the site was working. The debate over Obamacare had already moved on as the website got geared up, with Republican opponents throwing new wrenches into the system. By January, and certainly by now, Obamacare is robust enough that there doesn't seem to be much that can be done by its opponents to turn back the clock.
In a speech in Florida on Wednesday, Hillary Clinton embraced the policy, even while still maintaining a politically appropriate distance. Politico reports she said:
“Part of the challenge is to clear away all the smoke and try to figure out what is working and what isn’t,” Clinton said. “What do we need to do to try to fix this? Because it would be a great tragedy, in my opinion, to take away what has now been provided.”
Had the effort of the ad hoc tech team failed, and had Healthcare.gov only relaunched, say, now, there are a number of policy changes that would have needed to occur. Moving the individual mandate, for example, would probably have been unavoidable. That would have changed even Clinton's tepid language above; it would certainly have made the 2014 elections even more robustly about the policy.
The weirdest part about the Brill piece, frankly, is his apparent insistence that Obama should have, first, been personally aware of the scale of the problem and, second, been there to shake the secret tech team's hands as they walked out of the office in December. There was a failure in management, certainly, but it's hard to blame the President of the United States for not recognizing tech problems that weren't recognized by layers of management beneath him. As for the praise, Brill quotes Jini Kim, another Googler who helped quash bugs: "I'm sure he's got a lot of other things to do." Besides, praise and blame come later. That's Rule #2.