The technical and other failures of the HealthCare.gov launch have shown once again how bureaucracy and incompetence can undermine any major government project. The ingredients of HealthCare.gov's problems are familiar to most: intense political pressures, unrealistic deadlines, complex acquisition rules, misplaced management authority, and myriad contractors providing uncoordinated advice.
The scrutiny is clearly warranted. But it's worth remembering that those same ingredients were in play when the Recovery Accountability and Transparency Board was tasked in 2009 with managing the $840 billion economic stimulus program -- and succeeded in keeping track of virtually every dollar spent.
That program's success -- including the dual launches of FederalReporting.gov (to collect funding data) and Recovery.gov (for the public to report fraud, waste, or abuse of recovery funds) -- offers a reminder that the government can get things right in the face of bureaucracy.
The board's success had as much to do with transparency and strong governance as it did with sound technical management. And it provides federal agencies with some important lessons in how to avoid missteps and miscues on a HealthCare.gov scale.
A recent Government Accountability Office report details some of those lessons, offering a reminder of the importance of a few things.
- Standardizing data reporting to enhance accountability: The Recovery Board recognized that agencies use different accounting (data) systems, making it difficult to track Recovery Act spending. So the board set up a single government-wide set of data identifiers to track contracts, grants, and awards, and it opted to collect data from fund recipients. That approach allowed the board to use data analytics to detect, prevent, and remediate the fraudulent use of Recovery Act funds quickly.
- Securing stakeholder involvement as requirements develop: Federal officials listened to the concerns of state and local officials and other stakeholders responsible for disbursing Recovery Act funds. That engagement led to changes in reporting requirements. Those changes, in turn, helped improve the accuracy and completeness of data reporting and processing.
- Delineating clear requirements and lines of authority: The Recovery Act provided the Office of Management and Budget and the Recovery Board with clear management authority and mandated reporting requirements. Having the necessary authority, the Recovery Board could overcome some of the bureaucratic challenges that befall many large-scale government initiatives, including HealthCare.gov. That authority, some will argue, arose from a Congress that was more willing than today's Congress to help the nation.
But the point remains that the government can and does get things right on occasion. If only more agencies would embrace the lessons the Recovery Board has to offer.