Clay Shirky: Washington's 'failure is not an option' mentality helped doom Healthcare.gov

capitol dome

There is no question at this point that Healthcare.gov, from the planning stages all the way through to its launch, has been a disaster. It seems it has only successfully managed to expose the deeply rooted tech problems that plague Washington's IT infrastructure. However, media theorist and scholar Clay Shirky took to his blog to frame the issue differently. In his view, the collective delusion that allowed the site's planners to expect a perfect product without testing it ensured its botched debut. "This is not just a hiring problem, or a procurement problem," he writes. "This is a management problem, and a cultural problem."

"This is a management problem, and a cultural problem."

Shirky contends that the idea of "failure is not an option" prevails in Washington, even as it flies in the face of reality. This fantasy stems from the contempt management tends to have for dealing with hard tech problems — officials, he says, see dealing with tech experts as "a distasteful act." Necessary testing and a phased rollout would mean the potential loss of political capital, a worldview that's at odds with how making technology should work. As a result, "[the] mismatch between technical competence and executive authority is at least as bad in government now as it was in media companies in the 1990s, but with much more at stake." Healthcare.gov needed the kind of testing Valve did to ensure Half Life was a good product. Until that kind of thinking takes root in government, we're bound to repeat the same mistakes.

The Verge
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