Healthcare.gov’s Failure Starts With Leadership, Not Technology
There has been lots of fingerpointing about the digital technology problems behind Healthcare.gov. If I had to net it out, I'd say that government leaders blamed it on technology contractors and the technology contractors blamed it on each other. And everybody acted surprised that this could happen.
But seriously people, Healthcare.gov was doomed to fail at launch:
- No Web site ever worked perfectly on the first day! There are always glitches. It's always true with complex technology. Nasa didn't shoot a rocket to the moon first. It tested a monkey in space and went through a decade of learning before Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon.
- It's impossible to test a Web site with 250,000 users before launching. The only practical way to have launched Healthcare.gov would have been to do it a little bit a time, perhaps starting with a few counties in 5 or 6 states. This is what Amazon and Facebook and Google and Twitter do.
These aren't themselves the real failure. The real failure stemmed from leaders setting an expectation that Healthcare.gov could launch nationally and successfully on a single day. That was never possible.
But failure happens when business or government leaders abdicate responsibility for technology in their organizations. And failure happens when technology leaders are unable or unwilling to clearly communicate the challenges of using technology to launch a product or service.
Any major Web site executive — Jeff Bezos at Amazon, Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook, Eric Schmidt at Google, or Dick Costolo at Twitter, for example — could have helped Health and Human Secretary Kathleen Sebelius understand just how involved they are in technology strategy and decisions. These companies operate differently: Their business managers and technology managers work side-by-side often in the same cubicle farm to make smart and pragmatic business decisions supported by smart and pragmatic technology decisions. They have learned the hard way how important this is by experiencing failures along the way.
Digital technology is critically important to business and to government. Technology is embedded ever-more deeply into the way we live, work, and conduct business and government. No product or service is launched, sold, or serviced without digital technology. People often view the technology as the product itself. Amazon.com is its Web site. Facebook is its technology. In this case, witness just how strongly the media has connected Healthcare.gov, the Web site, with the national law it serves.
So what does this mean? It means that no longer can a CEO or government leader abdicate responsibility for technology. They must own it just as they own labor practices, revenue growth, compliance with the law, and expense management. And it means no technology leader can abdicate responsibility for the business. They must own it as they own Web site functionality, user experience, or systems capacity.
Let Healthcare.gov be a demarcation in history: that from this day forward no leader will abdicate responsibility for technology and for business. Instead, decide that as a business or government leader you will take responsibility for the technology. And decide that as a technology leader you will take responsibility for the business.
So next time, business or government leader, if you don't feel smart about the technology decisions you must make then bring in a lieutenant who is smart about technology. And listen to them carefully.
And next time, technology leader, don't let your business leader's eyes glaze over when you point out the obvious: That no Web site ever ran perfectly on the first day.