After the HealthCare.gov debacle first exploded three months ago, President Barack Obama pleaded for people to cut him a little slack: “I wanted to go in and fix it myself, but I don’t write code.”
At his year-end news conference recently, he struck a different tone: “Since I’m in charge, obviously, we screwed it up.”Continue Reading
“We screwed it up” is not exactly the same thing as “I screwed it up.” Even so, those two quotes are mileposts on one of 2013’s biggest stories: Obama’s bumpy graduate-level education in management theory.
A glitchy website and a wave of canceled plans gave Obama the worst headlines of his presidency in 2013, but at year’s end a range of management experts interviewed by POLITICO said a central question tended to get lost in the partisan firefight: To what extent do Obamacare’s early problems reflect the limitations, in experience and intellectual interest, of its namesake?
The heart of the issue, many of these people say, is that Obama and his inner circle had scant executive experience prior to arriving in the West Wing, and dim appreciation of the myriad ways the federal bureaucracy can frustrate an ambitious president. And above all, they had little apparent interest in the kind of organizational and motivational concepts that typically are the preoccupation of the most celebrated modern managers.
“No one asked you to write code or be a technical expert, but the expectation is you can set up a process,” said Kellogg School of Management professor Daniel Diermeier. “Companies do it every day.”
The critiques from these experts also raise a broader issue: Historically, the presidency is a political office, or, at its best, what Franklin D. Roosevelt called “a position of moral leadership.”
Just two modern presidents came to the office identified primarily with large-scale organizational achievements: Dwight D. Eisenhower in World War II and Herbert Hoover for leading European famine relief after World War I. Hoover’s failure, in particular, damaged the notion that effective managers necessarily make effective presidents.
It is also a fact, however, that Obama came to office with less executive experience — precisely none — than any president since Gerald Ford.
For nearly five years, this dearth didn’t seem to matter much. He responded with cool self-confidence during his first weeks in office, in the midst of a financial meltdown, continuing George W. Bush’s bank bailout and then passing his own $787 billion stimulus package. The raid that killed Osama bin Laden may not have been, as Vice President Joe Biden said, the most “audacious plan” in 500 years. But it certainly did not suggest, as the Obamacare rollout did, a president squinting Elmer Fudd-like to understand what was happening — and not happening — in the bowels of his own government about his most important domestic initiative.
“Where we’re seeing these costs are with the largest policy processes in the administration,” said John Hudak, a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “So it’s easier to sort of smooth over or tuck away some of the small-ball managerial failures, but this is a really big one and one that requires a lot of managerial expertise and it just wasn’t there and it’s not there in the White House.”
Part of the process that was initially missing — and that came up repeatedly both in conversations with experts and in the broader public discourse — was the appointment of someone to play a “systems integrator” role, someone who could have had their hands in the guts of the website project day to day. Jeff Zients’s nomination to lead the website rescue effort, coming a few weeks into October, looked intended to close that gap.
“Bringing those pieces together is at least half of the project, if not more than half of the project,” said Elizabeth G. Pontikes, an associate professor of organizations and strategy at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business.
The website has undoubtedly improved since its troubled launch on Oct. 1, and the White House has been working hard on a campaign to promote success stories pegged to the Wednesday kickoff of many Americans’ new insurance plans — a sign of optimism about the project and its management in the new year.
And the reporting on the run-up to implementation doesn’t suggest that the root cause was West Wing indifference or laziness. “The way I am attacking this is the way I attacked a lot of problems at the national security staff,” chief of staff Denis McDonough told The New York Times last summer about preparation for the rollout. He was said to be running war rooms filled with two dozen squad members and zealously distributing countdown calendars for the project.
“History will judge the president’s management by the millions of Americans who got quality, affordable health care for the first time, didn’t have to worry about going bankrupt because someone in their family gets sick or never had to worry about being discriminated against for having a pre-existing condition — all thanks to the Affordable Care Act,” said White House spokesman Josh Earnest in an email.
But there is a difference between having meetings and knowing which questions to ask. There’s also a difference between inviting concerns to be raised and creating a climate where people involved in the project actually feel they can raise those concerns.