By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Administration officials and defenders often claim that demand and volume overloaded the Federal exchange when it was rolled out. This claim is, in fact, not true, and I’d like to see what that lie tells us about organizational behavior inside the administration, and how it will react to future ObamaCare problems — which will be numerous.
First, some examples of the false claim, both from the administration and its defenders:
Barack Obama (U.S. President) 2013-10-01: [W]e found out that there have been times this morning where the site has been running more slowly than it normally will . The reason is because more than one million people visited healthcare.gov before 7:00 in the morning. And we’re going to be speeding things up in the next few hours to handle all this that exceeds anything that we had expected.”
Joan McCarter, Senior Political Writer for Daily Kos, 2013-10-01 . “The glitches that the administration warned would be inevitable, that Republicans have been pre-gloating about for weeks so far, all come down to the primary glitch of our broken health care system: for affordable health insurance, available to everyone.”
healthcare.gov error message (the Federal Exchange), 2013-10-02: “”We have and we’re working to make your experience here better. Thanks for your patience!”
Paul Krugman, Op-Ed writer and blogger, the New York Times, 2013-10-3: “[T]he glitches of October won’t matter in the long run … [a]ppear, for the most part, to be the result of the of traffic, which has been much heavier than expected.”
“Senior Administration Official”, 2013-10-04: “The amount of is really driving the issues. But we’re adding capacity every hour.”
Todd Park (U.S. Chief Technology Officer) 2013-10-05: “These bugs were functions of . Take away the volume and it works.”
Kathleen Sebelius (U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services), 2013-10-17 “[Sebelius] said that some of the website’s glitches wouldn’t have been identified The system had been pressure-tested at five times the highest volume that the Medicare.gov website had ever seen, she added.
Nancy Pelosi (Minority Leader of the U.S. House of Representatives), 2013-10-20: “They were to begin with. There is much that needs to be done to correct the situation, but 19 million people, 19 million people, unique visits. …. [A]ny system that deals with that many of people frequently does have a glitch.”
How do we know these statements are not true? Two reasons:
1. The site crashed when it opened at midnight on October 1. It immediately crashed for me, and for others. Capacity problems build slowly as visitors consume site resources. It beggars belief that volume instantly overwhelmed the Federal Exchange at midnight, especially in the absence of “Black Friday”-type marketing done for the opening. (Seriously, couldn’t the vaunted administration marketing team have gotten some cute, telegenic kidz to “camp out” somewhere waiting for “the doors to open”?) Also, whatever it is that Americans do on the Internet after midnight, it’s probably not buying insurance.
2. Pre-launch testing that the White House should have known about showed the site crashed with 200+ users. CBS:
CBS News has learned the website failed with a small test pool of that included employees from the government and insurance companies. The government employees worked at their own computers and desks within the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which oversaw the health care implementation.
According to sources familiar with the process, CMS employees were provided fake personal information to enter into HealthCare.gov rather than their own data and were given a date that testing would begin. However, on that date, the employees were told it was being postponed.
When the testing finally took place in late September, the testers started trying to create an application. Just a couple of pages into the process, everything “ground to a stop,” said one source.
the source said.
A couple of days later, testers tried again and had a similar outcome. They were never able to successfully browse plans for cost estimates.
“It was unequivocally clear from testing … this wasn’t ready,” said a source close to the testing.
C’mon. 300 people crash the site? That’s not volume. That’s not demand. That’s a broken system!
So, how did such a large group of nominally reputable people come to make this false claim? Easy enough for administration defenders like Krugman and McCarter; they assumed the guys on their team were telling the truth and really, if not, so what? But how about the insiders and the decision makers? That’s an interesting question in organizational behavior. Generally, I fall back on the eternal question: Are the elites — in this case, the Democrats — stupid and/or evil? I think we’ve got “evil” covered; cementing pure rent extractors like the health insurance industry into the heart of the health care system is evil, no two ways about it, so how about stupid? I think this article from WaPo gives some clues to the particular form of stupidity that pervades this administration. Going back way before the pre-launch test above:
Inside CMS, meanwhile, some staffers were aware by late 2012 that the work of building the federal exchange was lagging, according to a former HHS official — a much earlier timeline than has been previously disclosed. Some employees in the main office involved with building the exchange repeatedly warned at meetings late last year and in January that so many things were behind schedule that there would be no time for adequate “end to end” testing of how the moving parts worked together, the former HHS official said.
“People were just like, well . . . it’s a dynamic we can’t change,” the former official said. “There wasn’t a way to push back or challenge it up the line. You had the policy people, largely at the White House, pushing the deadlines and tinkering with the policy, rather than the people who had to run the critical operating path design and program the system.” …
White House officials say they were focused on whether there would be enough insurance plans for sale in the new marketplaces and on whether enough people would enroll. They say they didn’t have a clue how troubled the Web site’s operation was.
Only during the weekend after HealthCare.gov’s Oct. 1 opening did the president’s aides begin to grasp the gravity of the problems, the White House official said. Obama soon began getting nightly updates on the performance of the Web site, which has still been unavailable to Americans for hours at a stretch over the past week.
But that was still to come. A month earlier, on Sept. 5, White House officials visited CMS for a final demonstration of HealthCare.gov. Some staff members worried that it would fail right in front of the president’s aides. A few secretly rooted for it to fail so that perhaps the White House would wait to open the exchange until it was ready.
Yet on that day, using a simplified demonstration application, the Web site appeared to work just fine.
Let’s unpack that “simplified demonstration application” just a little. We have an earlier report from the Wall Street Journal:
When CMS presented HealthCare.gov to White House officials over the summer, they displayed a demonstration version of the website composed of screen-shots of the real exchange and overlaid with interactive features.
That version re-created the user interface, but didn’t include the underlying mechanics—such as identity verification and eligibility determinations—that have foiled the site’s launch. Displaying such versions for demonstration purposes is common in the computer industry. But it left senior officials unaware of the more complicated and ultimately troubled workings of the exchange.
We can’t know whether the “summer” “demonstration version” was the “September 5″ “demonstration application”; I’m guessing yes. But look at what we have here: We have organizational behavior that is so dysfunctional, so unable to pass bad news up the chain to the White House that three or four months before launch (“summer”) the developers won’t say the project is out of control, and less than one month the developers are still showing a fake site! And rooting for it to fail! Did nobody blow the whistle?
Until the tell-all biographies are written, we can’t know why the administration’s organizational behavior is how it is. But we can speculate freely!
‘The president has a real woman problem’ was the assessment of another high-ranking female official. ‘The idea of the boys’ club being just Larry and Rahm isn’t fair. He [Obama] was just as responsible himself.’ … ‘[L]ooking back,’ recalled Anita Dunn, when asked about it nearly two years later, ‘this place would be in court for a hostile workplace … Because it actually fit all of the classic legal requirements for a genuinely hostile workplace to women.’
And at this point we remember that Obama’s HHS report, Kathleen Sebelius, is a woman, as is Marilyn Tavenner, head of CMS, and any bad news from them could have been discounted, much as CEA Chair Christina Romer’s counsel was discounted. (Summers made Romer feel “like a piece of meat.”) To be fair, Sebelius says nothing to this effect, but then she’s almost visibly falling on her sword to protect her boss.
2.) Or perhaps there’s an Emperor’s New Clothes dynamic going on, a case of “pluralistic ignorance.” CNN:
“They had been claiming that the Obamacare rollout was his top priority and that he was receiving regular updates, which was inaccurate. And he gave remarks on October 1 about how great it was and that people should go sign up,” the aide said. “Assuming that he didn’t know that the website didn’t work, why did they let him make that speech when they knew it had crashed in testing? Did really no one recommend a delay to the President? It just seems odd.”
Well, it didn’t seem odd to the courtiers to let the Emperor walk through the streets naked! Or, if it did, they successfully suppressed their qualms.
3.) Or perhaps we’re looking at the group dynamics of a sociopathic ruling class. I wouldn’t even have raised a tinfoil hat-type possibility like this except Obama’s remark that “[I’m] really good at killing people.” But consider:
We can think of the entire hierarchy of elites within elites within elites that comprises the political class as a sorting mechanism that filters sociopaths to the top strata, rather like the CIA’s lie detectors sort people who can beat lie detectors (again, sociopaths) to the top. From Confessions of a Sociopath:
Sociopaths, mimicry, and blank slates
I think mimicry is interesting, and I think a lot of empaths think it’s freaky. What I find more freaky is what constant mimicry suggests — that you have no baseline “you,” that you are always just reactions to outside stimuli. …
I have a good friend who was initially very frustrated that I didn’t seem to have defaults: no default understanding of right and wrong, no default beliefs, no default personality even. Everything had to be reasoned, everything had to be constructed anew. It can be frustrating for me too. It’s time consuming. And sometimes it disturbs me how impressionable I am. Being a blank slate [or screen?], sometimes I can surprise even myself with non sequiturs or unpredictable behavior. It’s sort of scary.
So what happens when you have a relatively self-contained class or faction composed mostly of sociopaths, and they all start trying to mimic each other? Nothing good, I would imagine. Their fate would be, perhaps, like Terry Pratchett’s Auditors– or the humans in Phillip K. Dick’s Game Players of Titan.
I don’t know what outcomes the group dynamics of sociopaths would produce, but making sure bad news is heard seems unlikely to be at the top of the list.
Finally, whatever the outcome, we’ve seen (and Yves has many times pointed out) that the White House, and Obama, personally, seem to think any problem can be solved with better public relations:
–“[O]n February 14 , the president meditated on the most important things he’d learned as president … ‘The area in my presidency where I think my management and understanding of the presidency evolved most, and where I think we made the most mistakes, was I think one of the criticisms that is absolutely legitimate about my first two years was that I was very comfortable with a technocratic approach to government … a series of problems to be solved.
Yeah, well, how’s that technocratic thing workin’ out for ya on healthcare.gov, big guy?
So, given those two characteristics of organizational behavior at the White House — inability to hear bad news, and using public relations to solve every problem — what’s challenges are in store for ObamaCare until the New Year?
1.) This week’s enrollment numbers will be bad. That’s baked in because of the website fail. But what kind of numbers will there be? Reuters:
The Obama administration will release healthcare enrollment numbers for Obamacare’s rocky October rollout this week that could be more important for what they fail to say, than for what they do.
U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told the Senate Finance Committee last week that the early tally would be “very low.” … Before the October 1 website launch became a debacle, internal administration memos anticipated 494,620 enrollees in October and 706,000 in November nationwide, according to congressional investigators. Administration officials declined to confirm the numbers, saying projections are subject to rapid change.
But administration officials have not said whether the data will provide clues to other important questions, including whether young healthy adults, needed by insurers to offset older people with higher health costs, are eager to obtain coverage.
“They could give us very granular data showing enrollment by state, by plan level, how many enrollees had subsidies and at what level – all that stuff. But I think they’re going to give us something aggregated nationally,” said one aide.
It’s actually OK that the numbers are low in absolute terms; the MA enrollment for RomneyCare was initially low, and built to the final deadline. There are two metrics that matter: First, the order of magnitude of the enrollees compared to projections. 494,620 vs 49,462 is just barely passing; 494,620 vs. 4,946 would be very bad or, in Washington parlance, a “concern”; and even I don’t think there will be 494 enrollees. Second, the actuarial soundness of the pool; if the entire pool has a pre-existing condition, the insurance companies can’t profit. Unfortunately, the website debacle selects for the already ill, since only they have the incentive to sit through the days and the hours it takes to sign up. So I would expect the administration PR effort to: (1) roll out the heart-tugging YouTubes; (2) conceal the actuarial soundness, to avoid any hint that ObamaCare is already entering a death spiral; and (3) Focus on Medicaid signups, which are, after all, a success. And (4) claim next month will be better. Leading to….
2.) healthcare.gov will still be a mess by December 1. Here’s Czar Zients walking it back last Friday:
In a conference call with reporters, Zients said progress this week has been marred by roadblocks. He described HealthCare.gov as being “a long way from where it needs to be.”
And a figure of much greater clout, Leon Panetta yesterday:
“The president’s trust on this program is really going to be dependent on his ability to fix it,” Panetta said in an interview aired Sunday on CBS’s “Face the Nation.” “They said that they want to fix it by the end of November, but that’s going to be tough. These are complicated processes, and you’ve got to make very sure that you are, in fact, fixing it.”
And insurance figure Bob Laszewski writes:
It is now becoming clear that the Obama administration will not have Health.care.gov fixed by December 1 so hundreds of thousands, or perhaps millions, of people will be able to smoothly enroll by January 1.
Why do I say that? Look at this from the administration spokesperson’s daily Healthcare.gov progress report on Friday:
Essentially what is happening is people [those working on the fixes] are going through the entire process. As we have fixed certain pieces of functionality, like the account creation process, we’re seeing volume go further down the application. We’re identifying new issues that we need to be in a position to troubleshoot.
Does that sound like the kind of report you would expect if they were on track to fix this in less than three weeks? Their biggest problem is that they admittedly don’t know what they don’t know.
That sounds like a lot of bad news for the White House to process, especially the unknown unknowns part. And I don’t know of Zients has the clout to bring bad news up the chain; he’s really just a short timer. (Perhaps that’s why Panetta suggested a task force.) Nevertheless, I would expect the White House public relations effort to (1) declare victory, in that the “vast majority” of people can enroll, no matter what the reality of the situation. After all, this is the crowd that launched the website for one of the largest IT projects in American history without end-to-end testing, so having leaped over that block, why would they stumble at the straw of declaring it fixed? (2) If the back-end gets overwhelmed from a surge of new applicants, (a) stress the heroic efforts of the phone and paper processors, (b) blame the Republicans, and (c) even blame the insurance companies. (3) Roll out the Silicon Valley types they roped in for alibis; doubtless they were selected to be photogenic as well as technical. Also too (4) roll out the heart-tugging YouTubes.
3.) ObamaCare health insurance plans on the Exchanges will include a lot of junk. The website woes have kept the quality of the plans in the background, but we expect to be hearing more on this from Michael Olenick. (Also keep in mind the phrases “out-of-network” and “balance billing.”) Bad news delivery here depends not only on internal channels but on ombudsmen, consumer complaints, and so forth, which will be much harder to suppress. I’d expect administration efforts to (1) depend heavily on blaming the policy holder, and, naturally, (2) heart-tugging YouTubes.
Pass the popcorn.
NOTE The ObamaCare Czar, Jeffrey Zeints, also made the false claim that volume/demand Big Lie, but since I don’t have a direct quote, I’m leaving him off the list for now. Today is my day to be kind!
 BWA-HA-HA-HA! Also note lawyerly parsing of “will.”
 “In the next few hours” could that Obama’s staff still can’t tell him the truth,
 That was fast. Whatever else the adminsitration can or cannot do, it can certainly get its paid shills to snap to attention and begin to regurgitate with impressive speed. No problems with volume there!
 This is a two-fer!
 Interestingly, Pelosi is repeating the long-abandoned “millions of hits” talking point three weeks into the process. That transcript is weird, too. Full of word salad. If the Democrats don’t win back the House in 2014, I don’t think Pelosi will last as Leader. She doesn’t make sense when she talks.
 We see a similar dynamic in Connecticut.