Is The Obamacare Website Unfixable?

Virginia Postrel has written an editorial an makes an amazing claim that deserves attention.

The HealthCare.gov website is a disaster — symbolic to Obamacare opponents, disheartening to supporters, and incredibly frustrating to people who just need to buy insurance. Some computer experts are saying the only way to save the system is to scrap the current bloated code and start over.

Seriously? Scrap it and start over?

Postrel is something of a researcher so I assume she has a basis for what she is saying. I haven’t found a news story yet that directly claims that the program needs to be scrapped and a new system built up from scratch.

How long would that take?

We are hearing claims that the site will be running by the end of November. But we were also told that the system was never properly tested. Proper testing requires months, we are told. So how can we expect it all to be fixed by the end of November, even if Postrel is wrong about the need to start over?

I find the rest of Postrel’s post rather curious.

Looking back, it seems crazy that neither the Obama administration nor the public was prepared for the startup difficulties. There’s no shortage of database experts willing to opine on the complexities of the problem. Plenty of companies have nightmarish stories to tell about much simpler software projects. And reporting by the New York Times finds that the people involved with the system knew months ago that it was in serious trouble. “We foresee a train wreck,” one said back in February.

So why didn’t the administration realize that integrating a bunch of incompatible government databases into a seamless system with an interface just about anyone could understand was a really, really hard problem? Why was even the president seemingly taken by surprise when the system didn’t work like it might in the movies?

We have become seduced by computer glamour.

Whether it’s a television detective instantly checking a database of fingerprints or the ease of Amazon.com’s “1-Click” button, we imagine that software is a kind of magic — all the more so if it’s software we’ve never actually experienced. We expect it to be effortless. We don’t think about how it got there or what its limitations might be. Instead of imagining future technologies as works in progress, improving over time, we picture them as perfect from day one.

The rest of the column focuses on television portrayals of computer systems, but that mentions of Amazon’s “1-Click” button does point out that we actually use the web to look up choices and make purchases all the time. It isn’t the “glamour” of movie portrayals of computers that seduces us. Our own everyday experience with the web, including insurance websites, tells us that it should be possible.

Of course, if the government’s databases are confused and archaic that may be a problem. Governments tend to misallocate resources because they don’t face the same market pressures that private companies face. But I don’t think the Obama Administration was seduced by computer glamour. They just didn’t prioritize getting anything done.

The problem isn’t society’s fictional portrayal of computer systems. The problem is big government.