The analogy will be obvious, but bear with me:
Imagine an enormous corporation with several large divisions. The corporation has a CEO and each division has a president or senior vice-president.
(Example: At WalMart, Mike Duke is the CEO, Rosalind Brewer is President and CEO of the company's Sam's Club division, and Jack Sinclair is the Executive Vice President of the company's grocery operations.)
In these situations, the division heads report to the CEO, particularly on initiatives which are expected to have substantial impact on the company, whether on its revenue or earnings, or on intangibles like the company's brand.
It is not just the division heads who should want to be in close contact with the CEO on major company projects, but also the CEO himself. After all, the buck stops with him.
Yet when it comes to the organization with the largest budget, the greatest revenue and spending, in the solar system, the federal government of the United States of America, the CEO is AWOL.
On Tuesday evening, during an interview on CNN, Secretary of Health and Human Services, Kathleen Sebelius -- the equivalent of the president of a major division of the government -- said that President Obama did not know about the issues plaguing healthcare.gov.
If this were the corporate world, Sebelius would resign or be fired for dereliction of duty -- not just for overseeing such a disastrous product rollout, but for not keeping the CEO informed of the risks being faced. (Think of the resignation of Sergio Zyman after his "New Coke" disaster...although that resignation was not because he didn't report to the CEO of Coca-Cola Corporation during the process.)
But this dynamic rests on the premise that the CEO is responsible to shareholders and cares about the company's bottom line, and often that he would like to have his contract renewed at the appropriate time.
Unfortunately, America has a different kind of CEO. One who is aloof, unfocused on detail, not a leader, and most interested in avoiding responsibility. It is not hard to imagine him telling Sebelius "you handle it," in part because he is fundamentally lazy and in part because he wants the plausible deniability which led him to so often vote "present" in the Illinois State Senate.
When the CEO gives a technology integration project to a person with absolutely no IT experience -- and not just any project, but the most significant project taken on during the CEO's tenure -- it is the CEO to blame, regardless of his underling's attempts to be a human shield.
President Obama alone is responsible for the failure of the Obamacare rollout. But he is the last man in the federal government who will say (or at least who will say and mean) that the buck stops with him.
It's also worth noting for an insight into the mind of a bureaucrat that Kathleen Sebelius that she said, when asked about why the rollout is such a mess, "If we had an ideal situation and could build a product in a five year period of time, we probably would have taken five years." Imagine the project director assigned by Steve Jobs to do the technological development of the iPod or iPhone telling Jobs that he wanted five years, and that the ideal situation would be the ability to take as long as possible to release the product. He'd have been replaced immediately.
Or, for perspective more directly comparable to building a complicated web site -- and keep in mind that this example comes from people using the development technology of 15 years ago -- in 1996, Larry Page and Sergei Brin developed a search engine. In 1997, the Google.com domain was registered. By the end of 1998, three months after hiring their first employee, PC Magazine was lauding Google for having "an uncanny knack for returning extremely relevant results."
In short, two young men, working initially on their own, developed the world's most important web site and Internet company in two years, using tools of their own creation.
Yet the federal government, spending multiples of what a private corporation would have paid for a similar website, is unable to produce something even barely functional in three years, despite having the ability to use off-the-shelf tools and templates which should have made the project much easier than what Page and Brin did. (This is not to say that healthcare.gov is not a complex project, just that even at its level of complexity the fecklessness of its design and rollout is something that only a government could or would accomplish.)
Again, the responsibility for this failure must reach the president, not just because he is the CEO but also because it is past time for his non-stick surface to be scratched despite the protection of his toadies and his media sycophants. Republican hopes for 2014 depend on it, and Obama has richly earned it.
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