Bigger Picture Problems and Causes

This website business is no small potatoes.

As I alluded to in the previous post, problems with have serious implications. They make ACA-mandated program cancellations and the general transition to Obamacare harder for both the administration and Americans to cope with.

On Friday, Josh Marshall quoted, at length, a reader who desperately wants the program to succeed, but is struggling with the website snafus:

…it is with great anticipation that I have been looking forward to ACA. I live in PA, so we are in the federal exchange. I signed up for my account prior to launch, made myself informed on the law and its benefits. I am a huge supporter, and have been since it was passed. At the launch, I logged in dutifully and was hit full force by the failure of the web site. I kept at it dilgently for weeks. Finally, I was able to register and get an account. Step by step I have been able to get in farther and farther. I finally was able to do a complete application, but when it came time to the final verification stage. It said the system was down. That has been for weeks. And when you try to get in and finish the application, you don’t know the verification is down until the last step (you have to review every part of the application to get to the last step). I have tried calling in for the last step but no joy. I can of course go on and on.


I may not have TS’s [Theda Skocpol’s] gravitas, but we are quickly approaching a true crisis point. I don’t think people truly appreciate it. There is one month left to sign up for 2014 coverage. I think TS misses the whole crux of ACA working is that website working, in a month. If the website isn’t working, they have to be able to at least verify people’s eligibility on the phone or whatever to allow people to sign up. I think I am kind of the demographic they want: healthy middle class family that won’t be getting subsidies. But they are close to losing me. If I can’t get signed up by the end of the month, I have to make serious long term decisions about how to cover my family. She sort of glosses over the whole website working part to say that 100,000s will be insured by 01Jan. Maybe, but not in the federal exchanges at this rate. This is not a trivial problem, and even with 24/7 work on it, it isn’t getting better fast enough.

And Timothy Noah made an interesting bigger picture point on Thursday about how the Obama White House might have been more aware of the problems if it (like its predecessors) wasn’t obsessed with plugging leaks:

The president’s management style poses an obvious problem here—Obama is someone who (like Bush) prefers to place a great deal of power in the hands of a small number of White House aides with whom he feels especially comfortable. But that secrecy makes such a management style especially perilous. It’s often been noted that this administration has prosecuted more leakers, on national security grounds, than all previous administrations combined. The Obama administration is similarly vigilant about squelching leaks (deliberate or inadvertent) that might cause the president political harm. Some of this reflects a gradual evolution away from openness that’s taken place in Washington generally, as White Houses have learned to prize “message control” above all else.

Secrecy’s cost to the public is obvious. In a democracy, we need to know what our government is up to. But the troubled Obamacare launch demonstrates that secrecy imposes a severe cost on government as well. As Leon V. Sigal explained four decades ago in his book Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking, the press’s role isn’t confined to informing the public; it also plays at least as vital a role in letting various corners of the government to talk to one another. To underscore his point, Sigal quoted an affidavit that the economist John Kenneth Galbraith filed in the Pentagon Papers case. Recalling his days as ambassador to India during the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, Galbraith said: “I found it easier to bring my views to bear on the President of the United States by way of the Washington Post and its New Delhi correspondent than by way of the State Department.”

Such calculations were never exactly encouraged in the nation’s capital, but neither were they judged anywhere near so taboo as they are today. Perhaps some of the blame for today’s information deficit belongs with an economically weakened press that’s less able to bankroll investigative reporting. But most of it is the fault of the government’s own exaggerated fear that a freer flow of information will cause trouble. The lesson of’s inauspicious launch is that when information about how government is working doesn’t flow freely, the harm can be much greater.

Samuel Knight

Samuel Knight is a freelance journalist living in DC and a former intern at the Washington Monthly.