In governmental rollouts of services, every misstep is magnified

“We have 40 million reasons for failure, but not a single excuse.”


– Rudyard Kipling


I’ve really been troubled by the failure of the Obamacare web-based sign-up process. I say “failure,” because this $600-plus-million website is not working like it is supposed to be. In fact, it’s working so poorly we don’t know how it is supposed to work.

The problems forced President Obama to stand before a human shield of enrollees in the Rose Garden and admit the “website that’s supposed to make it easy to apply for and purchase the insurance is not working the way it should for everybody.”

Really? Should we be surprised that a significant customer service initiative undertaken by the government “is not working the way it should”? I doubt it.

Much already has been written about what is wrong, and much more will be said once Congress gets into the act. Clearly, the warning signs were all posted, but not heeded. Health and Human Services, the federal department responsible for all of this, says a “tech surge” is underway to fix the problems. In the meantime, people who want insurance are parked in “virtual waiting rooms.”

You have to wonder why the government gets into customer service in the first place. When projects are large and complicated, the private sector does such a better job. Insurance companies sign up thousands of people and process millions of claims as a routine part of their business. Amazon and eBay electronically sell products on a scale of millions.

In other words, signing people up for health insurance should not require the invention of a new wheel. It simply should take tapping into the expertise that already exists. Other federal agencies should have already figured this out, too.

You have to wonder why the Veterans Administration can’t get veterans’ claims processed in a timely manner. Why is there a backlog of not weeks or months, but years? I can get a car loan in less than an hour and a mortgage approved in a matter of days. Should Hyundai also process veterans’ claims?

I remember from my days not so long ago in the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development when we were introduced to a new computer program that was going to simplify official travel. Instead of having to go through the travel office, you’d go to a website. And we didn’t have a choice. The result? The roll-out was chaotic, and the employee responsible for the transition was on annual leave.

The federal government is an easy target. While it does many things well, such as keep our homeland safe, its sheer size and inefficiencies magnify every misstep.

But, we really don’t
have to look far to find
other examples of where the government let people down.

The local website says its employees have “put a lot of thought and care” into your trash collection so “you don’t have to think much about” it. The site goes on
to reassure you that you don’t have to wonder
when the trash collector is coming, and you can “count on our service-minded crews.”

So how did this work out for you last June when countywide trash pick-up was expanded? Granted, the city used contract haulers to accomplish the pick-ups, but city employees managed the entire process.

Some trash didn’t get picked up for weeks. Other folks never got a trash can. People were frustrated and felt the government didn’t care. The man responsible, Solid Waste Director Mark Johnson, later would say the city did not do a good enough job of marketing the service before it started.

But the problems went far beyond marketing. If those responsible had looked back to the lessons of 2001, when the city instituted the first round of countywide trash pick-up, you’d see the basic failure repeating itself was a lack of customer service. You would think the planners would have taken advantage of the large number of customer service call centers in Augusta for their expertise during the planning process.

Better still, government works best when it gets out of the way. The private sector has two things going for it that the government doesn’t – experience and accountability.

When customer services go badly for the government, no one is responsible. You’d think the president would take ownership of the problems in the sign up for his signature program. But, no, he’s a victim, too. “Nobody is more frustrated than I am,” Obama declares.

Frustrated? I suspect people trying to escape from virtual waiting rooms and actually purchase health insurance are a lot more frustrated than the president.

It’s like asking a civil servant “Which way did they go?” and he responds by pointing to the left with his right hand and to the right with his left hand. Well, you get the point.

The computer bugs will be fixed, and people will get their subsidized insurance. Veterans will have their eligibility settled, hopefully before they die. Your garbage will get picked up.

Government will proudly tell us what a great job they did for us, and look for new ways to make all of our lives better.


(The writer is a former mayor of Augusta; a former regional director for the Atlanta Region of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development; and HUD’s former acting assistant deputy secretary for field policy and management.)


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