POLITICS
02/19/2014 03:15 pm ET Updated Feb 20, 2014

Vulnerable Dems Decry Failed Launch Of Health Care Website, But Offer No Solutions

At some point in the recent past, you may have heard that the federal government launched this health insurance exchange website called Healthcare.gov, and it did not go well. What you might not know is that you would have never heard about this at all, were it not for Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, a Democrat from Arizona's 1st District. I missed this, too, but I've learned otherwise thanks to this campaign ad, in which the calm and soothing narrator assures us that Kirkpatrick "blew the whistle on the disastrous health care website."

Sure, right. Kirkpatrick's apparent bravery in the face of no one noticing the website's problems is the lead anecdote in a New York Times piece by Ashley Parker, documenting the way various Democrats, facing tight reelection campaigns, are hedging their Obamacare bets by making sure that everyone knows they weren't happy with the way the website choked on launch. Here's an ad supporting Representative Joe Garcia (D-Fla.) that describes the way he "took the White House to task for the disastrous health care website."

As Parker reports, Democrats ahead of the 2014 midterms are taking a “fix, but do not repeal” approach to the health care law, which is still widely perceived to be a vulnerability in certain districts. In general, Democrats who find themselves in that position are vowing to remedy all sorts of things. Senator Mary Landrieu (D-La.), for example, is touting a bill "that would allow individuals to keep their insurance plans even if the plans did not meet the minimum requirements of the health law."

But it's the candidates focused on the bungled Healthcare.gov launch who amuse me. I am reminded of a campaign speech from the hapless politician John Jackson on the animated series "Futurama": "It's time someone had the courage to stand up and say: 'I'm against those things that everybody hates.'" Can Kirkpatrick afford to lose the votes of those Americans who thought the launch of the website worked perfectly? Will her having "blown the whistle" on its failings chasten her opponent enough to forestall any Obamacare attacks? I guess we'll find out.

As entertaining as it is to hear these declamations against the website, it's also hard to miss their hollowness. It's nice that people like Ann Kirkpatrick have achieved the level of sentience necessary to recognize when something doesn't work, and that "stuff not working" is bad. But the fear of protecting one's flank from attacks on Obamacare is obscuring a problem that goes much further than the health care provision.

If there's anything the troubled launch of Healthcare.gov illuminates, it's that a lot of work needs to be done to bring the government into the 21st century. The malady is obvious: Government databases are not standardized and can't be synchronized. The contracting and procurement process needs to be reformed so that online projects -- great and small -- are built in a rational and competent way. And this is not a partisan issue: Future presidents of all political persuasions will be responsible for constituents who will expect to be able to get information and solve problems using their laptops and mobile devices.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, over in the United Kingdom, a similar case of a health care website gone wrong spurred politicians to act in a more visionary fashion. As NPR's Elise Hu reported:

Instead of writing behemoth, long-term contracts with a long list of specifications for outside contractors, Parliament greenlighted the creation of the Government Digital Service, a "go-team" of 300 technologists who began streamlining 90 percent of the most common transactions the British people have with government. It appointed [Mike] Bracken, a tech industry veteran, as the first ever executive director of digital -- a Cabinet-level position.

Two years later, gov.uk is a single, simple platform connecting hundreds of British agencies and allowing people to pay taxes, register for student loans, renew passports and more. Doing technology this way is saving British taxpayers at least $20 million a year, according to government estimates.

It isn't really enough to simply "blow the whistle" or "take someone to task" for Healthcare.gov's failures. Those issues underscored much deeper problems, to which these would-be public servants should respond by explaining how they'll reform the process that led to a failed website in the first place, and what specific steps they'll take to bring government into the digital age. Ignoring this issue simply demonstrates how out of touch these politicians are with the way ordinary people live their lives.

If you just look at the underlying electoral fundamentals, it's likely that Democrats are going to have a bad year at the polls. But the lack of vision and guts surely doesn't help.

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