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Healthcare.gov and the Rules of Disengagement

How Healthcare.gov missed an opportunity to truly bend the arc of citizen engagement.

How did it all turn out so badly? Where did we go wrong? Were there early warning signs that things weren’t going to work out?

It’s easy to confuse the lament of a teenager post-breakup with the national conversation about the Healthcare.gov debacle since it’s dismal October debut.

Just a few weeks ago, we were riveted by the practiced finger-pointing and hand-wringing on the left, and the gleeful confirmations of government incompetence on the right. Now our attention has turned to the hundreds of coders frantically trying to get an inflexible, opaque system up and running well enough to meet looming enrollment deadlines. Stories will continue to dribble out about the toxic mix of poorly chosen, badly coordinated contractors and the confounding lack of an overall integration manager. But all of these problems are well past the point when the administration made its most fundamental and major mistake.

When it became clear that traffic wasn’t the primary problem with the site, the administration’s immediate, defensive response was that the enormous hurdles of federal procurement requirements (which run 1,800 pages long) reduced eligible bidders to a small cadre of companies that are very good at winning government contracts and not so good at programming state-of-the-art websites. 

However, there was another pathway the administration could have taken but didn’t—a philosophical choice that the administration has become increasingly resistant to over the last six years. It could have chosen to manage the entire project as an open source process.

An open source process is very different from using open source code. A small part of the site uses open source code, but any company can grab open source code and incorporate it into their otherwise proprietary, closed system. 

Open source process is not the same as an unmanaged process. Individual coders or groups of coders work on pieces of a project, which a project manager then approves before it becomes part of the core product. If Healthcare.gov used this process, it would have allowed hundreds of very talented coders around the country to volunteer and participate in the project. How do I know? Because there are more than 3.5 million people contributing to more than 6 million projects via the software collaboration platform GitHub. Some of these people are voluntarily working on projects that already contribute to local governments through organizations like Code for America. Most importantly, many of them supported Obama in 2008; bucked the Democratic Party regulars by choosing a man with a different, newer outlook; and have been waiting since that time to meaningfully engage in governing. 

Of course, developing the site would still have been a massive, amazingly complex, and daunting undertaking with inflexible political deadlines. And the risk of sabotage was real. But it appears that this option was never really a possibility; this kind of process has become anathema to an administration devoted to hierarchical command and control structures. The centerpiece of its legacy was going to get done the old fashioned way: top-down, with little communication and coordination between various players. It’s a very expensive legacy, both in terms of money wasted on contractors and opportunities lost for meaningful citizen engagement.

Managing open source projects isn’t new to the White House. It has a page at GitHub. But these projects are just window dressing—they are not truly opening up the federal government to real citizen input. As the Sunlight Foundation posted on its blog in response to the administration’s recently released “Second Open Government National Action Plan”: “The most charitable characterization of Obama’s commitment to openness is that it has decayed from soaring rhetoric to a cautious incrementalism.”

But it’s not just the coding that could have been different with Healthcare.gov; the greatest loss is the persistent disempowerment of our citizenry. The administration’s focus is on risk reduction. While trying to tightly control processes and communications is understandable for an administration that has had to withstand daily assaults from critics, the cost of allowing critics to dictate how the administration operates leaves the rest of us on the sidelines.

Peter Levine writes and speaks about a new kind of citizenry. For too long, the expression of citizenry has been narrowed almost exclusively to voting. A request for a donation to Obama for America is not engagement. Taking government away from contractors and lobbyists, out of the backrooms and into the hands of regular citizens as participants, shapers, and doers is citizen engagement.

Healthcare.gov could have been this generation’s Manhattan Project, a marvel of technical know-how that was managed out loud and completed in public, with regular people contributing to its outcome.  

It’s not too late to switch the administration’s default setting back to “open.” We need to identify important projects and use them to continue the experiment of 21st-century citizen engagement as a roadmap for future presidents, governors, and mayors. With three years left in his term, President Obama can refocus his efforts and return to his community-organizing roots. He can leave a legacy of citizen involvement by engaging people to think, code, and do on behalf of their country.

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