How Healthcare.gov Cured America’s Tech Disease

In his live interview with Texas Tribune editor Evan Smith at the SXSW Interactive Festival last week, Obama asked the tech-savvy audience, “how can we come up with new platforms, new ideas, and new approaches across disciplines and skill sets to solve some of the big problems we’re facing today?”

It’s a provocative question for a president about to leave office. Still, the mere fact that the question was asked deserves recognition in light of Obama’s abysmal track record in technology deployment.

On March 23, 2010, Obama signed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act to extend health coverage to uninsured Americans. His signature officially set into motion the development of a website to make buying health-insurance plans like shopping for a plane ticket on Kayak or a TV on Amazon. Simple. And on October 1, 2013, despite a government shutdown, Obamacare launched on time at www.healthcare.gov.

This, of course, depends on your definition of “launch.”

Of the some 42MM uninsured Americans, only six were able to enroll on the first day. By day two, the total count was 248. In Healthcare.gov’s first week, only 0.04% of the 9.47MM unique visitors to the site completed enrollment. The site’s login system had a91% uptime rate. That’s worse than if Google.com stopped working for two hours, every single day. By Silicon Valley standards, the bug-infested healthcare marketplace was an abject failure, never mind a threat to Obama’s presidency.

Thankfully, by October 24, 2013, a team of Silicon Valley power hitters from Google, eBay, Kleiner Perkins, and the like had been called in to save the day. And they did. All in all, the IT project cost taxpayers around $2B, almost 4x what it cost to build Facebook and Twitter combined, and exposed our government’s profound technological handicap.

“And so there’s an example of an outdated system — bloated, risk-averse, not working well,” Obama said at SXSW. “We had to bring in a SWAT team of all of my friends from Silicon Valley and Austin to fix it…We realized we could build a world-class technology office in government that helps across agencies, and we’ve done that with U.S. Digital Services.”

Indeed, since Healthcare.gov, the White House has made tremendous progress in recognizing and promoting technology’s part in economic growth and job creation. Obama’s U.S. Digital Services team includes the first-ever U.S. CTO, former Google X executive Megan Smith, for the advancement of technology policy, data and innovation for our nation; the first-ever Federal CIO, VMware’s Tony Scott, to drive efficiencies across all government IT initiatives, which are viewable on a public IT dashboard; and the Presidential Innovation Fellowship which pairs technology innovators with social change-makers on a 12-month IT project.

Politics aside, Obama’s efforts to turn a public embarrassment into a presidential legacy demonstrate significant progress in closing the gap between the private and public sectors as well as our country’s digital haves and have-nots.

While the story of Healthcare.gov’s development is long and complex and political, never before has there been such a push by an administration to apply our nation’s technology and young talent to solving government problems. And I’d argue that we have the colossal failure of Healthcare.gov to thank for it.

“It’s not enough to focus on the cool, next big thing,” Obama said at SXSW, in closing. “It’s harnessing the cool, next big thing to help people in this country.”

Respectfully, Mr. President, I totally agree.