So I’m watching the nightly news, and they’re talking about the “troubled roll-out” of Obamacare, and I heard a similar story this morning on NPR. They keep interviewing people “in the biz” about how such a website *should* be rolled out, and about how terrible it is the way that government funds things because you can’t test stuff and roll out things slowly, and start small and grow larger and add features over time, et cetera.
I’m not disputing any of what the “experts” have to say about effective implementation of technology, except to say this: government, much like higher education, isn’t a business and it really can’t run like one. (A side note: a dude on NPR said the testing and implementation of the code should have been done open source. Am I the only person who sees that this could turn out COMPLETELY FUCKED UP?) It’s not a start-up. It’s not Facebook, and it’s not Google. I say this working at a university that has moved, over the past six or seven or so years, to some HIDEOUS software systems for managing things like faculty data (are any of you familiar with the atrocity that is “digital measures”?) and a student registration/enrollment management/faculty benefits-related stuff system that has been the bane of pretty much every single person at the university’s existence – well, except for upper administration, who doesn’t have to deal with it directly. (That’s why they get paid the big bucks?) When these “systems” were rolled out, they sucked in pretty much exactly the way that the news reports are describing the ACA stuff sucking. Does it have to be this way? Probably. Why?
1) With the public push to “accountability,” ain’t nobody funding experiments that may or may not work, that may or may not be scalable. These are “taxpayer dollars,” yo, and nobody (and by “nobody” I mean taxpayers, elected officials, the media) would support a plan to “test” something and lose a hundred grand, even if later on it might save a million. If that is how they planned to “roll out” the ACA website, I think that the ACA would have been laughed out of existence before it came to a vote.
2) Unlike with an actual business, which can start as an idea, and get venture capitalists to fund a “phase one” with the hope that the gamble might pay off, and then write it off if it doesn’t, government – and giant institutions like public universities – don’t get the luxury of starting small and going from there. If you pass a bill into law, it affects the entire citizenry (that’s what “law” means); if you decide to move to a system for enrollment management at an institution with 15K students, it has to be the same one for everybody, because students do pesky things like change majors – which might put them into different COLLEGES, let alone different departments – and you need a consistent way of dealing with them all. No, it’s not perfect, but you can’t first address, say, 500 people, and then grow to 5,000, and then grow to 10,000, and bigger and bigger. Nope, everybody needs to be speaking the same language, at the same time. Is that efficient under a business model? Nope. Is it “lean and mean”? Not. At. All. And it’s probably never going to get off the ground smoothly. But it is the reality of how things have to work in order for things to be equitable and transparent across administrative units. (Note: I kind of hate myself for being a person who would think to write something like “equitable and transparent across administrative units.” It’s kinda like how I hate having become a person who in certain moments will reference Robert’s Rules of Order, from memory.)
So the way that things work in taxpayer-funded organizations like a university, or, say, a government, is that you roll something out that sucks and then you trouble-shoot after the fact. One hopes that the glitches get fixed sooner rather than later, and one hopes the whole thing doesn’t turn out to be a giant turd. And, mostly, I think the glitches do get fixed(ish) and people adapt. But no: the roll-out isn’t going to be pretty. You can’t roll something out to tens of thousands (or hundreds of millions) of people as the first step and think that they will be.
But one last thing that the folks “in the biz” haven’t (as far as I’ve heard) uttered a peep about: people aren’t happy with the slow-and-steady-wins-the-race adaptation of businesses like Facebook or Google either. Just think: how do people in your Facebook feed respond when they change any tiny thing about Facebook? How many times have you gone through the rigamarole where people are all “I’m moving to Canada!” er, “I’m going to stop using Facebook and move to Google+!” Only to have all those people realize that everybody was still on Facebook and then finally to adapt to whatever horrors of data-mining that Facebook has decided to perpetrate? How did you all feel when Google announced that Google Reader would be a thing of the past? Until, of course, you moved over to Feedly and got over it? My point here is this: even the way it is “supposed” to happen throws us all for a loop, and we all hate it. Can you imagine the impact it would have if something initiated by a giant organization like the U.S. Government tried to operate that way? Would that really get more people more affordable health care? It wouldn’t. It would be a colossal clusterfuck.
Now, you might be saying, but this is a colossal clusterfuck! Sure it is. But in this model, everybody is in the clusterfuck together. And, ultimately, while it will suck for a good long while – maybe forever – at least it will suck democratically, and improvements will be made democratically. How exactly could they have started on a smaller scale with rolling out Obamacare? Choose a certain state? How can Massachusetts be a model for North Dakota? Or the state where I live that is pretty much the heart and soul of Tea Party Insanity? Start with people in a certain tax bracket? I think we can all recognize the problems with that. No, what we’ve got sucks. For sure. But at least (at the very least) it sucks equally, one nation under god, with liberty and justice for all. (Dude, justice ain’t happiness or convenience or efficiency or easiness. It’s just fair.)