President Obama has been unwilling to admit that the problems with the Obamacare roll-out might suggest that he needs to work on improving his management skills. Instead, he has chosen to blame the complexities of government bureaucracy, and in particular the complexities of the government procurement process–all matters that have seemed to be rather surprising to him–and this view has predictably been echoed by some in the pundit class.
I have several thoughts on this matter:
1) It is not yet clear to what extent the Obamacare systems problems are a function of too much bureaucracy in the procurement process versus too little bureaucracy in that process as employed in this specific case. In particular, were Serco and CGI and other key contractors selected based on the robot-like processes of the Federal procurement system…or was heavy political influence involved? I don’t think we know yet.
2) A good workman understands the limitations of his tools and materials. We wouldn’t think much of a civil engineer who designed a high-traffic-carrying bridge without paying close attention to the load-bearing characteristics of the steel girders and cables used; nor would we think much of an architect who designed a house in which a family was investing much of their financial net worth without considering the weather resistance of the wood and other materials he was specifying. Shouldn’t Obama, before embarking on a plan to greatly increase the Federal Government’s role in healthcare, have seriously considered the characteristics and limitations of the tools and materials that he was using–the Federal agencies and their policies and procedures–for this purpose? He stands convicted out of his own mouth for not performing this basic level of due diligence.
3) Whatever the encumbrances of the Federal bureaucracy–and yes, we all know they are significant–nothing prevented Obama from taking a more serious and responsible executive role in supervising the roll-out, and/or putting effective people in key leadership positions. Can there be any doubt that if a person of the quality of General Bernard Schriever, for example, had been put in control of the technology and paperwork process implementation, the odds of success would have been considerably better?
4) Most important: Obama and his media/academic sycophants refuse to understand the inevitable limitation of government micromanagement. I’ve previously quoted Peter Drucker:
Whether government is “a government of laws” or a “government of men” is debatable. But every government is, by definition, a “government of paper forms.” This means, inevitably, high cost. For “control” of the last 10 per cent of any phenomenon always costs more than control of the first 90 per cent. If control tries to account for everything, it becomes prohibitively expensive. Yet this is what government is always expected to do.
The reason is not just “bureaucracy” and red tape; it is a much sounder one. A “little dishonesty” in government is a corrosive disease. It rapidly spreads to infect the whole body politic. Yet the temptation to dishonesty is always great. People of modest means and dependent on a salary handle very large public sums. People of modest position dispose of power and award contracts and privileges of tremendous importance to other people–construction jobs, radio channels, air routes, zoning laws, building codes, and so on. To fear corruption in government is not irrational.
This means, however, that government “bureaucracy”— and its consequent high costs—cannot be eliminated. Any government that is not a “government of forms” degenerates rapidly into a mutual looting society.
(I’m confident Professor Drucker would agree that whether the forms are paper or electronic makes no difference at all in this context.)
As I also noted earlier: the expansion of government into all aspects of human life leads to increasing inefficiency–while the increasing frustration with bureaucracy results in a widespread demand to “make government more responsive” by giving more discretionary authority to administrators and to their political superiors. This is exactly what we are seeing with Obamacare, with the emphasis at present being on an increase of discretionary authority for the political superiors of the administrators. This, in turn, must result in a government which is not only a looting society (Obamacare waivers or special privileges for politically-well-connected groups, for example) but increasingly a tyranny. Yet at the same time, there will still be enough baroque proceduralization (selectively enforced) to ensure high levels of inefficiency and very high government administrative costs. And the discretionary authority–the movement away from a Government of Laws and toward a Government of Men–must create widespread uncertainty and, consequently, equally widespread economic damage.