Why Google and Amazon Couldn't Have Built Obamacare Better

There's a reason private sector firms aren't lining up to help fix Obamacare.

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FILE - In this Friday, Oct. 11, 2013 computer frame grab, the HealthCare.gov website is displayed. The model whose face appeared on the much-maligned Obama health care website says she felt intimidated by harsh public criticism of the program. The woman, who identified herself only as "Adriana" in an interview with ABC News, says she was never paid for appearing on the website's home page.

Critics of Obamacare are using its Internet woes to claim, once again, that government can't do anything right. If Google built Obamacare, they say, the site would work flawlessly and every uninsured American would have found a plan by now. If Amazon built Obamacare, every uninsured American would have already chosen a plan, put it in their shopping cart and checked out.

It's a tempting argument to make. After all, we all admire the technological prowess of Google and its peers. But the comparison is faulty for many reasons.

First, in the private sector you can hire the best people (or the best subcontractors) you can find, without regard for politics. But in the public sector, procurements are doled out to second-tier firms or carved up into small and hard-to-manage bits. The carving rewards companies that make campaign donations and provides pork for senators and congressional representatives who sit on key committees.

[See a collection of political cartoons on Obamacare.]

Second, in the private sector, you can follow best practices for development. You are not forced by the political process to take dangerous shortcuts and use improper development procedures. For example, no private sector company would consider launching a huge, high-stakes new website without piloting it with a small group of users first. The obvious implication for Obamacare is it should have been tested in one or two smaller states first, before rolling it out nationally.

Yet political considerations (mostly the fear on the part of administration officials that Republicans would use a long testing cycle as another opportunity to kill the program) led to a decision to curtail testing. By comparison, Microsoft's beta testing process for Windows 8 ran for more than six months, involved millions of users and generated more than 100,000 specific changes to the program.

Third, good IT depends on a willingness to make tough decisions in order to simplify things and make them easy to build. Google's search interface, for example, is both exceedingly simple and exceedingly powerful. In the private sector, a visionary CEO like Steve Jobs has the power to strip away complexity, yielding a product that is beautifully clean in design and operation. But in public sector information technology, no one has that power. The constant need for negotiation and compromise leads to system designs that are overly complex, hard to implement and even harder to maintain.

Finally, and perhaps most important, no private sector company would tolerate large-scale efforts by staff to sabotage a flagship product. Imagine if Google's CEO discovered one day that nearly half the company was actively seeking the failure of Google's next major product. The leaders of the sabotage would lose their jobs within minutes. But such sabotage is endemic and ongoing with Obamacare, and nothing can be done to stop it, apparently.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the economy.]

Failures of large scale government projects involving information technology are all too common, regardless of which branch of government is leading the procurement, and which political party is in charge. Systems procured under Republican leadership fail, just like systems procured under Democratic leadership. Systems built by private contractors are vulnerable, just like systems built by government employees.

The problem has nothing to do with whether government or private employees are doing the work. The real problem is that the political process overcomplicates the design, spreads the project too finely among too many contractors, subverts the use of best practices and actively works to sabotage the work. No project manager on the planet, whether government-employed or privately employed, can consistently deliver results in the face of these obstacles. Ironically, those who complain most mightily about the alleged incompetence of government are often the ones trying hardest to sabotage its work. Failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Undoubtedly Google could build a great health care platform for America – if it could do so under the same terms and conditions as it builds its search products. It would need complete control over the design specification, the development team, the testing, the rollout schedule and more. It would need the ability to adapt and change without going back to a constipated congress for reauthorization. Perhaps that's why Google and other top performing internet companies have declined to offer their services to meet the health care challenge. They recognize the no-win nature of the political constraints we impose on the process and wisely choose to have nothing to with it.

David Brodwin is a cofounder and board member of American Sustainable Business Council. Follow him on Twitter at @davidbrodwin.

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