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Blog: Obama’s IT Troubles

Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole MIss Communications
Photo by Robert Jordan/Ole MIss Communications

So, it seems that the two biggest problems currently perplexing the Obama Administration are technology that doesn’t work, and technology that is working all too well.  No doubt, the Obama inner circle is pining for the good old days of the partial government shutdown.

First, the technology that doesn’t work: the dysfunctional Obamacare website.  Commentators across the country and even mainstream media outlets are reporting on the disastrous rollout of www.healthcare.gov.  The website is the half-baked face of a half-baked law.

The website has become fodder for late-night jokes.  When Obama and Sebelius have lost Saturday Night Live and Jon Stewart, there are serious “glitches” ahead.

While the website will eventually be fixed, the problems with the law will remain.  Those problems grow clearer by the day as well.

More about the troubled website and the Administration’s response to it.  First, the Administration had more than three years to prepare for this, and only now seems to be addressing things like site testing, reviewing system architecture, and checking data integrity.  These are vital functions that if properly managed, may have made for something other than the “third world experience” (an Obama Administration official’s terminology, not mine) that it has been.

When I served as the Chief of Staff for Secretary of State Delbert Hosemann, I was intimately involved in a series of agency IT projects, including a remake of the SOS website.  We managed several other major “back office” software and hardware upgrades to make the agency work more efficiently and effectively.  For a relatively small state agency, each of these endeavors was a large task.

Different parts of the agency had different software programs and functionality.  For the SOS website, we worked to enhance online filing and searches of business forms, lobbying reports, information about state boards and commissions, and lands records.  Another goal was to make the site more user-friendly, so that Mississippians could find the information they needed as easily as possible.

I am not sure we fully succeeded on every front, for every user.  But we added substantial functionality and streamlined information available on the site.  It took a lot of dedicated time and effort both by internal IT staff and outside vendors.  And testing, checking, and more testing before any project went “live.”  It had to work.

It is not necessarily good enough simply to throw more of the “best and brightest” workers at a troubled IT project, as the Administration now is doing.  Adding more people may simply mean “too many chefs in the kitchen” (or too many programmers on the keyboards).  That could lead to inconsistent coding, and maybe more new problems than the ones that are fixed.

It is unclear that anyone in charge of the Obamacare site ever considered such lessons learned.  The Obamacare website, which is much more complex in its architecture, has blown past $1 billion in cost.  Despite that complexity and cost, the reports coming out about design and testing of the site before launch are troubling.

My running joke whenever I would speak to a Rotary Club about modernizing agency technology was that if anyone knew of an IT project that finished on time and under budget, I wanted to meet them.  No one ever volunteered.

Now, the real joke is on Americans who are looking to the lemon of all IT lemons to shop for health coverage required under Obama’s signature law.

But for Obamacare’s IT meltdown, the President would likely be getting more negative coverage because of another area where technology is working all too well.  The National Security Agency has been spying on many of our Allies around the world.  So, in addition to listening perhaps to your cell phone and mine, the NSA has been tapping, among others, German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s.

It’s not so much the spying that’s the issue, necessarily.  Some of the most outraged countries have spying operations of their own.  But the Administration has mishandled the flap, managing to lose even more credibility on the world stage.

President Obama first told Chancellor Merkel that the U.S. was not spying, and if the idea was proposed, he would not approve it.  Then reports surfaced that Obama both knew about the eavesdropping, and approved it.  In a third version, cited by Democratic Senator Diane Feinstein on October 29, Obama simply had no idea the NSA had been spying on our Allies.

It all looks like the Keystone Cops.  And, in both the Obamacare and NSA lapses, the technology isn’t what is causing the “glitch” in leadership.

Cory T. Wilson is a Madison attorney with Heidelberg Steinberger Colmer & Burrow, P.A. Follow Cory on Twitter, @CoryWilsonMS, or email cory@corywilson.ms.

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