At some point in their lives, everybody screws up. The loftier your ambitions, the larger your mistakes usually become. But if you really want to screw up something on a grand scale, you need to marshal the forces of the U.S. government.
Whether you lean left or right or run straight up the middle, there's no question that the rollout of HealthCare.gov puts the "cluster" in "cluster***k." Some people couldn't reach the site at all; others couldn't register. Some who did register are getting back inaccurate information about what insurance programs they qualify for; insurance companies say they're getting wrong or duplicate information from the government.
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A report in the New York Times says it may take weeks or even months to unravel the mess:
In interviews, experts said the technological problems of the site went far beyond the roadblocks to creating accounts that continue to prevent legions of users from even registering. Indeed, several said, the login problems, though vexing to consumers, may be the easiest to solve. One specialist said that as many as five million lines of software code may need to be rewritten before the Web site runs properly.
It is so "excruciatingly embarrassing," as former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs stated, that shortly before this story was posted, the president himself went on national TV to offer a mea culpa and promised a "tech surge" to solve the problem. Maybe he'll order a drone strike on the Department of Health and Human Services.
Where are the geeks when you need them?
Remember, this was the administration that allegedly understood technology, which appointed the first federal CTO, which used superior social media and modern data mining techniques to win two national elections. They weren't supposed to suck this hard at something this fundamental.
In an essay for CNN, legendary computer science researcher Steven Bellovin says he's not especially surprised by the screwups:
Sure, the website rollout could have been handled a lot better. With all the delays and warning signs, the government could have stopped touting Healthcare.gov and teasing the public with messages such as "5 days to open enrollment. Don't wait another minute."
But the federal government has never had a fantastic track record in dealing with technology projects. This was not just an Obamacare problem. Most of the government has little experience in managing such a big, complex project, and management is a remarkably large part of the effort; building a system like this takes far more than just programming.
The problem, says Bellovin, has more to do with bureaucracy and mismanagement than lack of technical prowess. (Stop me if you've heard that one before.)