Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Why you need someone with Clout, not credentials

There will be case studies written for decades on why the roll out of went so badly, but one lesson should be apparent already, and it is not one that we often hear about: get somebody with political clout, i.e., connections with the political people at the top of the administration, to run the thing.

Tension and Flaws Before Health Website Crash - "over the past three years five different lower-level managers held posts overseeing the development of, none of whom had the kind of authority to reach across the administration to ensure the project stayed on schedule.
As a result, the president’s signature initiative was effectively left under the day-to-day management of Henry Chao, a 19-year veteran of the Medicare agency with little clout and little formal background in computer science.
Mr. Chao had to consult with senior department officials and the White House, and was unable to make many decisions on his own. “Nothing was decided without a conversation there,” said one agency official involved in the project, referring to the constant White House demands for oversight. On behalf of Mr. Chao, the Medicare agency declined to comment."
'via Blog this'
When you a government program goes badly there is usually a call to get someone in there who has area specific expertise, someone that knows the particular subject matter at hand, to do the job and make decisions on a rational, non-political, basis.

But that is often the exact wrong advice. Many of the decisions that had to be made and were not made in the website roll out were not strictly speaking technical in nature but political. There was no purely technical answer to the decisions that held up the process so long, such as whether or not users should be required to give their social security number or whether they should be able to see prices without having created an account and thereby getting their potential subsidies figured in before hand.  These are questions that involve value trade-offs and political calculations.

Moreover, they involve political risks. That is why none of them could be answered before consulting with political people higher up in the administration, a process which inevitably takes a long time and which made it impossible to take many other purely technical decisions in s a timely manner. What the Obama administration needed was not more people with computer expertise but more people with political clout empowered to make decisions on the design of the website.

And that is one of the things that is troubling about Obama's hands off management style. He says that he doesn't write code and goes off to do another fund-raiser. But the problem wasn't writing code, it was making political decisions on which coding decisions were dependent, decisions that only he or someone politically connected to him can make.

No comments: