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The Spider-Web: Why the Obamacare Site Won't Be Done on Time

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he biggest mistake the Obama administration made when promising the government's health care website would be fixed by the end of November was making that promise. In a "Ready, Fire, Aim" approach, the administration failed to take the necessary time to assess what actually needed to be done to make the site work as promised.

Obama's decision to bring in some of the nation's top computer talent to fix the website would have been a brilliant move had it been made when the planning for the system began a few years ago. Those with experience in the high technology world have seen the misery that occurs when a product's design is seriously flawed and needs to be "fixed." The cost of major fixes after release of a product can be ten times the cost of fixing them during the design stage.

In this case, the complexity of the effort appears to never have been totally appreciated by the non-technical decision-makers in the administration. The biggest challenge was the new system needed to connect and interact with numerous, diverse, and often incompatible existing systems such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Internal Revenue Service, et cetera. This was similar to bringing people together to work as a team, each of whom spoke a different language and none of whom know a language other than their own.

This lack of appreciation for the new system's complexity -- which involved tying together disparate systems and creating ways for them to understand each other -- was magnified by (a) the failure to properly test the new system and (b) the decision to require visitors to create an account prior to being able to see the Health Exchange's offerings.

The failure to properly test the new system was inexcusable. That testing should have occurred more than half a year ago so there would have been time to make corrections. Instead it was done only partially and even that was done at the last minute. The result was some problems were identified with too little time to fix them before the system went "live." Even worse, other problems went unidentified until the public began to use the system. There was no reason for any of this to happen. It demonstrated an extraordinary degree of incompetence by almost everyone involved -- from the top down.

Just as serious a planning failure was the decision to require visitors to thegGovernment's health care websites to create an account in order just to see what was available. This was one of the most irrational decisions the administration made for three reasons.

First, this countered the entire culture of shopping in America. Consumers always have been able to view goods and see prices to determine their level of interest before providing any information. Retailers and other sellers understand a key principle in marketing -- "Make it as easy as possible to buy our product or service." The administration, by making consumers work harder, foolishly put up a barrier which discouraged people from even exploring what was available.

Second, by requiring highly confidential data, the administration drove even more people away. Given the lack of trust in government, magnified in recent years by revelations of government abuse of private information, many citizens understandably do not want to share their private information just to window shop. The government's failure to recognize this demonstrated how out-of-touch it is with the American people.

Third, the delays and problems with the new system discouraged those who logged on from completing the process. As word rapidly spread how broken the system was, others did not even bother to try. Failing to recognize how forcing users to spend an excessive amount of time on the system would discourage potential participants, the government again erred egregiously.

Shopping should be simple. Users should have the choice of plugging in their income before they shop so they can see what the actual cost of a plan is going to be. And it should be stated upfront whether the user should enter Adjusted Gross Income or Taxable Income --- which is not stated initially (yet another design failure). Users should be able to view all the plans at once (an option the administration paternalistically denies) to see what the costs and benefits of each are.

Of course, this raises the question that most plans are more expensive than what citizens have today and that, too, discourages people from signing up at all. This will create further problems for Obamacare if as millions of healthy people -- needed to subsidize those with greater medical needs -- abandon the health care system altogether.

The Silicon Valley and other high-tech geniuses looking at the problem today probably threw up their hands and recommended the Administration start all over. Sometimes this actually is a better approach than attempting to fix a horribly designed system but this could entail allowing the current system to limp along for many months while its replacement is built.

Maybe soon the website will work smoothly but my guess is -- no matter what the administration does -- healthcare.gov likely will be a mess for months to come.

Aaron Harber hosts "The Aaron Harber Show," seen on Channel 3 KCDO-TV (K3 Colorado) on Sundays , and on ION Television and COMCAST Entertainment Television as well as at www.HarberTV.com. He directed the conversion of over 3 million lines of computer code for a complex statistical software product and was president of an international computers' users group. Send e-mail to Aaron@HarberTV.com. (C) Copyright 2013 by USA Talk Network, Inc. and Aaron Harber. All rights reserved.