Kathleen Sebelius recently announced her plans for moving Healthcare.gov forward. Inspector General Dan Levinson has been enlisted to review the entire effort. The Center for Medicare & Medicade will create a full-time risk management position and Jeff Zients‘ company QSSI (now owned by United Healthcare) will continue to manage the day-to-day operations of the web site. Answers about who is in charge are coming quickly enough but the details about what precisely went wrong don’t seem to be as forthcoming. (edit: Jeff Zients is not the owner of QSSI. Mr. Zients will serve as the program manager for Healthcare.gov and manages the relationship with QSSI, the prime contractor)
The Healthcare.gov website has all the makings for a new era of government. From its start as an Open Source project in a garage to its rapid ascent to the forefront of national discussion, we have never seen a situation where politics and software were so entangled. The Obama administration has always had the attention of the Free Software movement. From its focus on transparency to its Drupal powered White House website, it seems to embody the values of the Internet culture. This affinity rose to a crescendo when Healthcare.gov managed to tie the success or failure of an entire Presidency to a single piece of software.
This phenomena of legislation merging with software may very well be a harbinger of things to come. Government has historically been a creature of papers. Armies of bureaucrats keep the cogs of the state moving by following the policies printed up in manuals. The government was certainly the first to adopt computers but its paper machinery is vast. Healthcare.gov hints at a future where legislation emerges not as a new flavor of paper pushing but as software directly facing the citizen.
For a long time people have understood that governments with secret laws, secret policies and secret courts are hazardous to the public’s health. The world has seen enough sneaky dictatorships to want these things nipped in the bud. Unfortunately, not so many people have grasped the possibility of a world where laws, policies and courts are replaced by software. People still think of software in the terms defined by ints private enterprise origins. It is viewed as property, belonging to a person or enterprise. People don’t give a second thought to the fact that there are powerful systems managing their day-to-day welfare that are pretty much entirely secret. Where the line between software and the law lies is suddenly becoming a lot more blurry. Between Healthcare.gov and recent revelations of the NSA’s capabilities we have been thrust into a bold new world.
Its easy to dismiss these thoughts as paranoid. The IRS has used software to manage people’s taxes for decades. Every part of government from Federal agencies to the smallest city department uses some kind of computer to keep track of data, so what is so different? Maybe the important thing is that the newer generations of software are moving from helping government employees find information to actually making decisions. Police departments use software to examine outstanding warrants, correlate them with social media activity and select potential candidates for enforcement. With the NSA under scrutiny for letting thousands of agents listen in on the conversations of so many citizens they have the motivation and the capabilities to replace those agents with software. How long will it be before the software is requesting court orders directly?
Backing Away From Open
It is ironic that one of the first reactions to Healthcare.gov’s problems was to close down access to the source code of the front end. The front end was the only part of the system that actually worked reliably and it had been developed in the open from the beginning. This must have stood in uncomfortable contrast to the rest of the system once things started breaking down. Eric Gundersen, the president of the organization that developed that software, said “If people had more insight into the code, and it was open, a lot more people would have a sense of what’s happening.”
The most important thing that the government can learn about Free Software is that it isn’t a product, it is a process. The reason it succeeds is because if someone really cares about a problem they can look into the facts of the situation for themselves. It is comforting that Mrs. Sebelius put strong and capable managers on the Healthcare.gov problem. Unfortunately, the removal of the Healthcare.gov code and the lack of answers about when that level of transparency will return begs for more than a list of names. If we are to believe the critics of Obamacare, our entire future and the welfare of our nation hang in the balance. If that is truly what is at stake then we should have our nation’s experts, all of them, looking at the code for that system.