How to Criticize Obamacare Without Really Trying

by Gene Giannotta

The Obamacare rollout has been a study in how not to introduce a major web service to the world. From reports of the debacle, there seemed to be a lack of proper coordination  as well as adequate testing. For a system so complex, that was obviously a recipe for disaster.

But while much of the rhetorical whirlwind out of Washington has centered around the question of who’s to blame for the mess, the “who” is largely besides the point. The question we should be asking is why. Just like the other October failure of government - the shutdown - the reasons for HealthCare.gov not working are not a simple matter of finding a person or two who screwed up and firing them, as cathartic as that might be for politicians and others looking for symbolism rather than solutions.

Any entity as large as the federal government, with as complicated a system of intertwining bureaucracies and competing interests both within that network as well as outside, in the realm of public opinion and congressional oversight, is probably more likely to end up with some wires crossed when a project as massive and high-profile as HealthCare.gov goes live.

After all, this isn’t the only botched IT project the federal government has presided over. The Post’s Walter Pincus, a longtime observer of the national security complex, pointed to a recent example under the Defense Department’s purview:

In this case, it was the Air Force. In 2005 it began a program designed to integrate into one system about 240 outdated computer networks at 600 locations that didn’t communicate with each other. It was to manage things such as equipment inventories, contracting, financial administration and personnel assignments.

The Air Force first estimated that the Expeditionary Combat Support System would cost $5.2 billion. On Nov. 14, 2012, it said it was canceling ECSS after spending up to $1.03 billion. The system “has not yielded any significant military capability,” according to an Air Force statement e-mailed to reporters. The Air Force estimated it would need $1.1 billion more to complete one-quarter of the originally designed program. Even so, it would not be ready until 2020.

2020!

So imagine if the Obama Administration had delayed the opening of the site until it was “ready.” In that alternate reality, we might be seeing hearings full of politicians wondering where the heck it is…in 2016.

Big bureaucratic entities, whether the federal government or private corporations, tend to face many of these kinds of issues. And in the case of the ACA, implementation requires federal, state, and private organizations all working together, with the added scrutiny of hyper-partisan politicians in Congress waiting to pounce on any slip-up as a sign of its fated implosion.

So in many ways, when commentators and critics point out HealthCare.gov’s flaws, they miss the real phenomenon we should be focusing on.

Just like the shutdown, the Obamacare rollout lays bare the simple fact that unlike a lean startup or small businesses that can afford to wait to release their product when it’s “ready,” government is dictated by political forces that can be far less patient or forgiving. To be sure, politics abounds in private industry as well. The business world is as rife with tensions between competing interests and personalities as the world of governments. But the ACA combines those two atmospheres together to create a uniquely problematic mess.

Consider these points, from Ezra Klein, when he addressed Republican demand for someone to point the finger at:

How about Senate Republicans who tried to intimidate Sebelius out of using existing HHS funds to implement Obamacare? “Would you describe the authority under which you believe you have the ability to conduct such transfers?” Sen. Orrin Hatch demanded at one hearing. It’s difficult to imagine the size of the disaster if Sebelius hadn’t moved those funds.

How about congressional Republicans who refuse to permit the packages of technical fixes and tweaks that laws of this size routinely require?

How about Republican governors who told the Obama administration they absolutely had to be left to build their own health-care exchanges — you’ll remember that the House Democrats’ health-care plan included a single, national exchange — and then refused to build, leaving the construction of 34 insurance marketplaces up to HHS?

Now, this isn’t meant to pin the blame on the GOP, but rather to point out that Obamacare’s implementation - including the construction and reliability of the exchange web sites - hinges on the same sort of politicking that has made it impossible to craft long-term budgets and nearly brought the United States to the brink of default on multiple occasions over the past couple years.

But that also isn’t meant as an indictment of government-run projects, either. After all, it didn’t work out too well when the DoD outsourced the “systems integrator” role on several of its own projects.

TechCrunch’s Gregory Ferenstein, meanwhile, has plenty of criticisms, one which gets to the heart of my point about politics:

The company hired to build HealthCare.gov’s failing database, CGI Global, is an established government contractor (established enough to have actually lobbied Congress on the Affordable Care Act). Even though Canada had previously fired the firm for a botched $46.2 million medical registry system in 2011, CGI Global was still contracted to the build the technical keystone of the U.S. healthcare law.

“I think procurement in the federal government is broken. It favors incumbents and the status quo over the lean start-ups in terms of its archaic procurement rules and regulations,” Vivek Kundra, former U.S. chief information officer, told The Washingtonian.

Startups simply don’t have the knowhow to get around the oddly complicated procurement rules—or the congressional ties to curry favor. As a result, a mediocre contractor charged an astounding $93 million for a botched job.

Yes, but how to “fix” the system? Those large contractors, relying so much on government dollars, won’t just let go of their clout without a fight. And if smaller firms and start-ups could gain access to a more competitive procurement system, the results probably won’t be immune to the same logic of the existing reality. The very nature of competition (and rational human behavior) means that once one reaches the goal, they’re likely to try to hang on, preferably with the least amount of effort (i.e., the least costly route).

Evan Burfield, co-founder of DC startup incubator 1776 and formerly in charge of the company tasked with creating Recovery.gov, was also critical of the procurement system, in an op-ed this week. But while he holds up Recovery.gov as an exemplar of how government can work with startups on smart, effective web site projects, it was not without criticisms in its early days.

Burfield concludes by saying:

The best result that could come from the attention on HealthCare.gov is if Congress seeks to reform how the government procures IT contracts. Americans of all parties want an effective government that costs taxpayers less. Procurement reform would be a win for all of us.

A few weeks ago, I referred to “collective action problems” when discussing the politics of the shutdown and whether it was a “rational” outcome:

Essentially, it means that individuals, by pursuing their own self-interest, will in turn collectively harm the good the group as a whole. For example, lots of individuals thinking “well, what I do won’t make that big an impact, so what the heck” and going ahead with bad investments or irresponsibly getting rid of waste could end up causing terrible effects on the economy or the environment.

What this means is that individual rationality does not necessarily translate to social, or group, rationality. It might be in my best interest (benefits outweigh the cost, and hence “rational”) to litter, or waste a negligible amount of money (to me) on a bad financial bet. But taken together, all of those bad bets and tossed wrappers pile up.

The same logic can apply to procurement. After all, one man’s “cronyism” is another man’s “sticking up for my constituent.” Or fundraiser, as the case may be. The point is that Congress, as a body of 535 individuals with separate incentives, policy ideas, and interests, probably won’t use this moment as an excuse to streamline a process that probably works pretty well for each individual. Contractors know how to divvy up their processes to align what’s good for them with what is good for multiple members of Congress. The classic examples are in Defense contracting, but they exist everywhere.

In other words, we may agree with one part of the problem but the processes involved are so complex that they defy the kinds of easy solutions those diagnoses imply. But we prefer simplicity, so answers that make things sound easy are far more palatable. Like saying the administration should have relied more on startups, a more competitive contracting system, a more centralized approach, or some combination of these.

Or comparing Obama’s government with Obama’s campaign. My Votifi colleague Matt Sarge touched on this earlier this week, saying, “The consensus seems to be that the ACA website is an undertaking unrivaled by anything attempted on the campaign trail.”

The Post’s Brian Fung also tackled this problematic comparison:

Yet political campaigns are geared to do one thing, and that’s to win. Everybody who’s involved in a campaign shares a common interest, and to the extent that their tasks vary, staffers and volunteers nevertheless operate as a team. As the president’s critics often point out, however, governing is different from politicking. All agencies are supposed to work toward the common goal of providing for the public’s welfare. In reality, it’s a messy landscape of cross-cutting political interests and battles over pride and budgets. That makes coordination a lot more difficult. Even when the agencies themselves have agreed to cooperate, their infrastructure might not.

It’s a good sign that we all agree on the need for a more agile, responsive, and coherent process when it comes to government projects generally and contracting in particular. But that doesn’t mean we’ll agree on how to get there. And so maybe we can get those processes more agile, responsive, and coherent, but in order to do so we’ll have to make peace with the fact that they - and the system they exist within - will continue to be annoyingly imperfect and inherently complex.

 

What most schools don’t teach (by CodeOrg)

Latinos y Mobile

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Can’t believe that SXSW is around the corner. Just a year ago we were speechless when we found out we made it into the Startup Accelerator Finals. SXSW was a fantastic experience for us personally and professionally. We officially launched Votifi in Austin and the experience contributed to much of the success we had this past year. 

We’re looking forward to attending SXSW again, this time as Discourse Analytics. Thanks to everyone who voted for our panel on the Panel Picker. Lou will be speaking on a panel called “Latinos y Mobile: The Silver Bullet” on March 8th at 5:30 PM [link]. 

Joining him on the panel are Kety Esquivel (moderator) who is currently a VP at Fenton Communications (@KetyE); Brent Wilkes, National Executive Director for the League of United Latin American Citizens (@BrentWilkes) and Estuardo Rodriguez, a principal at the Raben Group (@EstuardoDC). 

New times call for new methods and as Einstein said you can’t solve the problems of today using the same technology we used to create them.

No where is this more the case than in the Latino community: a highly diverse, highly mobile, highly tech adaptive population. There is no better place to explore these issues than at SXSW.

Today we’re also launching the second installment of our LatinoVoice survey to elicit responses on the impact of technology in the Latino community.

Last year at SXSW, we learned that Latinos saw blogs and Facebook as the best places to interact with others in the community, felt passing the DREAM Act was a top priority, and believed vocational education was the best way to realizing the American Dream.  What will we learn this year?

Take the survey, pass it along to your friends, and help us make the Hispanic voice heard this year at SXSW.

You can follow the conversation on twitter at #mobileLTN. And let us know if you are going to be at SXSW this year. We’d love to meet up. 

The Access Tech Innovation Prize

By Aasil Ahmad

One of the things I’m proud to be involved with is Access, an organization dedicated to preserving internet access and privacy for the world’s most vulnerable internet users.

One thing that is clear - the battle for freedom on the Internet is not just something that affects activists in Syria, Burma or Egypt. It affects everyone with a mobile phone or internet connection. 

The International Telecommunications Union (the UN agency that handles this stuff) has been holding (secretive) meetings to talk about a global governance regime for the internet. It approved a new technology standard that basically makes it very easy for governments to eavesdrop on everything that flows over the internet. This can’t be a good thing. Brett Solomon, Access Executive Director, penned an essay in Wired in which he explained why the UN should not be making decisions about the architecture of the internet behind closed doors. 

At least there is someone working day and night to promote awareness and innovation in this space. Earlier this year Access announced its first ever Tech Innovation Prize. The purpose of the competition was to encourage hackers around the world to develop products and features that integrated technology with a human rights objective. 

The Access Innovation Prize is a new initiative that will award 5 lots of US$20,000 to individuals, organizations or networks that have the best actionable ideas of how to use information technology to promote and enable human rights or deliver a social good outcome. $100,000 will be granted in 2012.

The categories for the competition include:

Blackout Resilience

For the best actionable idea to help build an open-sourced, blackout resilient technology for use by activists and human rights workers in conditions where there is a need for alternate communications infrastructure to the one put in place and/or controlled by the authorities. For example, where there has been a communication network shutdown.

Making Crypto Easy

For the best actionable idea to properly integrate encryption into an existing product/system, educate users as to how to use encryption and/or build a community who use encryption by default.

The Bounty

For the best patch for a disclosed or as yet undisclosed vulnerability in a program/platform or software used by human rights defenders and activists. 

UPDATE: This category didn’t get enough good submissions so the prize money for it has been incorporated into the Golden Jellybean award.

Golden Jellybean

For the best actionable idea of how communication technologies can be used to promote and enable human rights.

UPDATE: This category has been split into two sub-categories - the Freedom of Expression Award and the Grassroots Technology Award.

Access Facebook Award

For the best actionable idea of how to use the Facebook platform to deliver a human rights, human development or social good outcome. 

The finalists were selected by a panel of 13 judges including Alex Macgillivray, General Counsel at Twitter, John Lilly, Partner at Greylock and former Mozilla CEO, Elliot Schrage, VP of Communications at Facebook and many others listed here.  Projects were evaluated based on the likelihood that they could actually come to fruition and be scalable/sustainable as well as how many people would they affect? Projects were also evaluated based on how impactful they could be and how innovative the idea is. 

The list of finalists includes 22 interesting ideas. Some of the ideas are sort of “cloak-and-dagger” like Reticle, a disposable computer that cannot be traced. I am thinking “This message will self-destruct in 5-seconds”. The Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation is working on something called FlashProxy, which enables Facebook users to contribute their internet connection to support users trapped behind a firewall by creating a secure channel for them. The Electronic Frontier Foundation submitted browser extensions for Chrome and Firefox that force sites to use https when communicating with their visitors, a simple but effective way of protecting your personal information, especially when surfing on public networks. To me the most interesting projects are the ones in the Blackout Resilience category like Brian, Project Byzantium and RePress. Each of these projects is trying to build ways to circumvent blocking technology and enable users to connect and communicate with each other when governments try to shut down the Internet. 

Am looking forward to finding out who the winners are and, more importantly, to see how these technologies evolve in the near future.

The awards ceremony for the Innovation Prizes is TONIGHT, December 10, 2012 in New York City. You can follow along on twitter at #techprize12 or just follow AccessNow at @accessnow. 

The Future of Energy

By Ian Rosoff

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Google has about $42.72 Billion dollars in cash and short-term investments. Apple has about $100 billion in cash and Microsoft about 66 Billion. The question continues to be what will these tech giants use their stockpiles for? Google has quietly invested about 1Billion in the alternative energy sector. They are directly invested in a wind farm in Iowa. A similar deal is pending in Oklahoma. These projects are highly calculated and are built in tandem with huge data centers. The agreement in Oklahoma is a twenty-year deal. Google is looking long term and has already set in motion plans to make all of its campuses and data centers carbon neutral.

These deals are more than just attempts to be good corporate and global citizens; Google is making a foray into an entirely new and unrelated business. It is funding solar projects to the tune of $94 million dollars for four new plants in California. It is partnering with investment firms like KKR and energy companies across the country. There may come a time in the near future when Google is the country’s largest alternative energy company. Will companies like Apple follow suit and create large new venture capital arms to their business model? Well…Apple is already potentially branching out into the world of renewable energy. Its data centers are also going green.

These policies make sense for a few reasons. Firstly, Google is receiving tax credits reducing about 30% of the cost of these investments. Secondly, data centers are incredible energy black holes and getting energy costs down is crucial as described in detail in this report from the New York Times. Finally it’s great PR. Google is going to profit big time from these moves.

Tech giants are perfectly positioned to be game changers in the renewable energy game. They have the funds necessary to really make wind or solar competitive and the technical talent to pull it off. I thought the energy race would take another few decades to truly heat up and I believed traditional energy companies as well as myriad of successful alternative energy startups would be leading the way, but I’m betting Google, Apple, and Microsoft will have something big to say about the future of energy.

The Tech Agenda Under Obama: The Next Four Years

By Ian Rosoff

President Obama was a start up candidate; he had a great original pitch at the 2004 democratic national convention, and from there he quickly gained momentum toppling the Clinton candidacy and shutting down popular Senator John McCain to become the first African American President in history. The President’s victory in 2008 and again on Tuesday is partly due to the superior quality of his ground game and his ability to harness technology to strengthen his campaign and volunteer efforts.

As someone who knows firsthand the power of technology in our post-industrial economy, we can continue to expect aspects of his 2nd term agenda to focus on the role technology plays in creating jobs, fostering energy security, and ensuring that America stays on the cutting edge of innovation.

The startup community can hope for a few things in particular:

The biggest specific policy initiative is the Startup 2.0 Act, which would increase the work visa availability for foreign science, tech, engineering, and math grads from American universities, as well as increase entrepreneurship visas for foreigners. Tech Crunch believes this reform is in the pipeline for next year. 

Todd Park, the Chief Technology Officer, a position created in Obama’s first term, has been rolling out the President’s open government policy, which is designed to help businesses that need or use government data. The Health Data Consortium is using the open government data to help draw crime maps and create apps like WeMakeItSafer.

The government will also play a role in regulatory matters regarding technology and the Internet. Two bills, SOPA and PIPA were already heavily contested in the president’s first term, and issues about copyright and Privacy on the Internet are, depending on how Congress addresses these issues again, possibly the defining tech issue of Obama’s second term. Regulation of the online marketplace is still in its infancy, and it is apparent that government has a lot of catching up to do on developing a strategy that balances the interests of startups and tech companies as well as established media corporations.

Another controversial government project is the government’s early stage innovation fund. The government has had its share of failures investing in individual companies, with the Solyndra scandal being the most notable. But the government has some successes as well, like the veterans start up incubator to help vets start new high growth businesses, or a company like Cabulous who credits the capital gains exclusion in president Obama’s 2011 budget for their growth. The innovation fund is also committed to investing in clean energy companies.

Green jobs are likely going to be an important part of this administration’s innovation agenda, but the administration should not be myopic in only looking to invest in green tech or the most cutting edge tech coming out of Silicon Valley. The innovation fund will focus on infusing capital into less conventional startup areas so small businesses from outside places like California will get more exposure.

The Startup America partnership, which we are big fans of, is another avenue for funding and mentorship for startups.  We are actually pitching today at the Reboot America summit, where former and first White House CTO Aneesh Chopra will be speaking. He talked about the goals of Startup America last year in an article he wrote while serving as Chief Technology Officer of the United States. Access to capital and mentorship for high growth startups are key aspects of the initiative and Startup America has partnerships with the NYSE and the Case Foundations as well as other influential institutions to help foster entrepreneurship education. 

It’s an exciting time for Startups and many college graduates who feel the traditional corporate path is not for them are taking their talents to startups. New programs at top universities are being created to cater to the startup culture and prepare students to start their own companies out of college.  

The President’s commitment to encouraging startups and expediting the growth process for new businesses in the tech industry could be critical to his economic legacy. 

6 mobile apps to get you through Election Day

Votifi - of course we can shamelessly self-promote, in the spirit of elections; also the only one of these apps to already be available on Windows8 [iOS] [Win8]

Polltracker - Poll junkies can keep track of all the polls they can humanly swallow with this one, via TalkingPointsMemo [iOS]

Adhawk - Provides funding information about the groups responsible for political ads, from our friends at Sunlight Foundation [iOS] [Android]

SuperPACApp - Similar to Adhawk, but provides additional information regarding the claims that an ad is making [iOS]

FactCheck.org mobile - Not a real app, but a slick, mobile friendly interface that allows you to check facts regarding the Presidential elections

Show of hands - a cool polling app that shows instant feedback on how people are voting around the country [iOS] [Android] [KindleFire]

Know any more good ones? Let us know @votifi and we’ll add to the list

Hot Get Out The Vote Tech (via @Techcrunch)

Some cool/creepy tech that’s helping to get out the vote today, via TechCrunch

  • The Romney Campaign’s Digital Brain: Project Orca
  • Organizer, a volunteer and canvasser logistics startup, brings UPS-like logistics to neighborhood get-out-the-vote workers, overlaying a walking path most likely to reach the important fence-sitting voters over a smartphone map.
  • Vote With Friends allows users to catagorize their friends into blocs of likely voters and message them with reminders to vote
  • Poll-Watcher, which monitors which Democrats stroll into the voting booth and then relays the information back to callers and canvassers, so that limited get-out-the-vote resources can be targeted to those who haven’t voted yet.
REBOOT AMERICA SUMMIT - Nov 8-9 in Washington DC

We will be pitching at the Reboot America Summit in Washington DC on November 8/9 along with other cool startups like POPVox, Ruck.US, ElectNext and NewsIT. 

The agenda looks fantastic. Steve Case (AOL CEO) is keynoting along with tons of other great speakers from Microsoft, OPower, Troopswap, Personal and the White House. 

If you’re in DC and want to attend you can register here. If you’re going to be there, let us know @votifi and we’d love to meet up.