Healthcare.gov Debacle: Spare Some Blame for Bush and Clinton

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President Barack Obama stands with, from second from left, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

President Barack Obama stands with, from second from left, former Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library on the campus of Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Thursday, April 25, 2013. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak)

If the problem-plagued rollout of healthcare.gov is any indication, 25 years of bipartisan efforts to downsize the federal government and turn a broad swath of what was the public sector over to private contractors haven’t yielded the awesome efficiencies the “reinventing government” crowd promised us. What a shocker.

Slate’s David Auerbach dug into the team tasked with delivering this admittedly complex website, and found an impenetrable web of contractors and subcontractors, some with more political connections than experience to recommend them, working on the project with poor coordination and oversight.

Michael Slaby, the Obama reelection campaign’s tech guru, told Andrew Romano of The Daily Beast that federal procurement “rules all favor incumbents.

The people who get the job are not necessarily the people who are good at delivering a website. They’re mostly just government contractors who are really, really good at the system. Then they subcontract, and that makes the process even more complicated. It’s very hard to build technology by committee.”

And as the problems with the system became apparent, we just shovelled more and more dollars at these same contractors, according to Reuters.

Our never-ending debates about the size of government have always been rather silly when you consider that in the end, quality is always more important than quantity. Good governance is so much more important than some arbitrary, ideologically informed notion of the government being too big or too small.

And the belief — common among conservatives — that the size of government is growing at a breakneck pace is almost laughable. In 2012, there were 355,000 fewer civilian workers in the federal government than there were in Ronald Reagan’s final year in office (and 800,000 fewer total personnel when you include the uniformed military). That’s despite 25 years of economic growth and the addition of several new programs.

It’s no accident – we’ve been shrinking down the government and outsourcing as many of its functions as we could for a generation now. The Clinton administration’s “Reinventing Government” initiative – which took place in two phases, known as REGO I and II – resulted in a whopping 17 percent reduction in the federal workforce. The effort conformed to a central belief of Clinton’s New Democrats: that old-school liberals had become too enamored with public programs, and harnessing the power of the “free market” would allow them to deliver better public services at a lower cost.

The initiative resulted in some innovations, like government data being made readily available over the Internet. But 20 years later, Donald Kettl, dean of the School of Public Policy at the University of Maryland, told Government Executive, an industry magazine, that it also caused some serious problems. “The reduction didn’t happen in a way that matched workforce needs because they used a strategy for downsizing to hit a target,” he said. “The effort got in the way of the ‘making government work better’ piece. Many with special skills left, and people who stayed might have been those we’d have wanted to leave.”

And here’s the kicker: According to a 1999 study of defense contracting by the Project on Government Oversight (PoGo), even as we were outsourcing a ton of work to the private sector, the agencies that had been “successful at reining in industry fraud” were those hit hardest by the cuts, including a 19 percent cut in staff at the Defense Contract Audit Agency, which had saved “almost $10 for each dollar invested,” and a 21 percent cut in the Department of Defense Inspector General’s office.

When George Bush came into office, his team wasn’t interested in most of Clinton’s “reinventing government” reforms. The exception was outsourcing. Paul Light, a professor of public policy at New York University, told Government Executive that the new administration hated bureaucracy, and championed “procurement reform,” stripping away more layers of oversight in order to further “streamline” the contracting process.

PoGo executive director Danielle Brian wrote in 2007 that all these “changes to procurement law so undermined taxpayer protections that, as many IG inspections are revealing, the contracting system is now rife with waste and abuse. The system lacks real transparency and accountability, and freezes out many smaller firms through extraordinarily weak competition requirements. And some contracting practices, once considered to be unlawful, are now business as usual.”

(Whatever the impact all this outsourcing has had on the delivery of public services, there’s no question it was an effective union-busting technique. That’s just basic math: we’ve moved hundreds of thousands of jobs out of the public sector, with its 36 percent rate of union membership, to the private sector, where only 6.6 percent of the workforce belongs to a union.)

Nobody can say with any certainty that the rollout of healthcare.gov would have gone smoother absent those two decades of so-called “reforms.” But looking at the oversight problems and the tangled web of contractors and subcontractors that had their hand in the process, it’s certainly fair to say that “reinventing government” by gutting it doesn’t appear to have lived up to its promise.

Joshua Holland is a senior digital producer for BillMoyers.com. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter or drop him an email at hollandj [at] moyersmedia [dot] com.
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  • Anonymous

    “In 2012, there were 355,000 fewer civilian workers in the federal government than there were in Ronald Reagan’s final year in office (and 800,000 fewer total personnel when you include the uniformed military). That’s despite 25 years of economic growth and the addition of several new programs.”

    And, how many more citizens are there in that same time span?

  • Anonymous

    I was teaching school in the early 70′s. Even then there were big school districts that hired people just to write proposals for government money. These studies did nothing to improve education. The money was not granted to the best schools that could show others techniques or programs to improve education. The money was not used to improve education in poor schools. The proposals were to ‘get’ money.
    So now we have firms that know how to get money or grants to do a job, and simply do not know how to do the job well. Big surprise. DC is all about getting money.

  • evilroyslade

    Free enterprise and capitalism are becoming four letter words (Crap, Sh%t, Mess)

  • Sam Gompers

    You can’t be serious. This has to be a joke. Big Government fails, and you’re blaming Bush?

  • Anonymous

    And Clinton. You might want to read the piece.

  • Anonymous

    6.9% of Americans are public employees at all levels of government. When Bush left office, it was 7.2%. When Reagan left office, it was 7.4%.

  • Kae Bender

    As a federal employee 1976-1984 and an IT administrator in insurance until 1999, I can attest that in both sectors, contracting was (and my contacts report still is) a connection game rather than an exercise in effective competent production.

    Too often in both government and insurance there is lack of competent oversight on complex major IT projects. Political appointees (whether the politics are governmental or corporate office) are charged with executing the politically proposed and approved contracts, and the civil service/working staff personnel struggle to bring questions, problems, coordination, and testing to the table. In every contract I’ve witnessed, the cost per working hour was considerably higher with contractors, and the productivity was lower because of both the learning curve/ lack of system familiarity and the indifference about product excellence/documentation since the contractors were only responsible for producing a portion of code (not a glitch-free, working system).

    The cost savings of outsourcing is all smoke and mirrors. No contract is ever delivered on-time or on-budget. Inevitably, testing, troubleshooting, correction, and maintenance are all add-on costs.

  • z

    The origins of this pervasive calamity are rooted in the doctrinal changes made by Cheney at DoD during the Bush senior regime. Google ‘ LOGCAP’. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time – and it consolidated massive political and economic power in certain prime contractors. Now, if your company wanted to sell anything involved in logistical support ( from satellite communications to porta – potties to burger franchises ) to the military you had to go through them, who marked it up on a cost plus basis. Nice work if you can get it.

  • Sam Gompers

    When has the solution to having too many overpaid under-qualified union workers ever been to hire more overpaid under-qualified union workers?

    Your logic doesn’t even pass the laugh test. It’s like some dogmatic religious tautology we get from the Evangelicals.

  • strider367

    Ross Perot was made a billionaire because he was given the social security outsourcing. Always wondered how SS saved money by paying him billions? This nonsense was started by Reagan thinned down by George the elder. But still the outsourcing cost more than having government workers doing the job. Strange how the current republicans refused to take ownership of this debacle. Since they created the bulk of this really bad money grab. Which of course they get a personal piece of the pie for every contract written…

  • Anonymous

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    working part-time off a pc. browse around here J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

  • JonThomas

    Laugh test? Joshua presented facts and documentation to back up his opinions. Unfortunately (maybe – thankfully,) what you have offered is something less than platitudes.

    What does your comment even mean?

    Are you saying that having more Government workers is indeed the right thing? Just as long as they aren’t union members it’s fine?

    Are you against unions? Against Government? Against Government unions? Come-on son!

    Are you simply against under-qualifications? Does belonging to a union automatically make a person under-qualified?

    Does working for the Government make a person under-qualified?

    Are we alone the only ones who see your accusation of dogmatism ironically reflective of your own comment?

    If you comment more clearly perhaps you too would see that without any real premise, your comment sounds like a mix of dogmatic slogans from union haters and government cynics.

    Is this a debate tactic? Are you purposefully using the exact same methods of which you accuse the subject with whom you disagree?

    You accuse Mr. Holland of ‘dogma’ but you did so with the only un-supported dogma on this page.

    Please, please learn to present coherent up-building comments instead of propagandist 1 liners. This site has a more demanding readership.

    You may have pearls of wisdom to present… insight from which we could learn, through which we could become better people.

    But… as long as you only offer bobbles, you make yourself look bad! You leave us convinced that you are just a vendor of cheap intellectual knock-offs.

    We can do better than a war of words through this medium, can we not?

    Did you catch the Moyers’ interview with Sherry Turkle?

    http://billmoyers.com/segment/sherry-turkle-on-being-alone-together/

    You can watch the entire show here…

    http://billmoyers.com/episode/full-show-america%E2%80%99s-political-breakdown/

    Within that interview, M(r)s. Turkle and Mr. Moyers discussed using the online medium in ways that can up-build both people, and society.

    Using forums like these to only attack what you do not like is a form of bullying. Sorry, but myself, and many (if not most) readers here, stand against such efforts.

    In this case Mr. Holland (perhaps others too, like a research staff) put a good deal of effort into writing this article.

    It’s one thing to disagree, but it’s another to tear it down through insults.

  • Anonymous

    Thanks, Joshua. It seemed that, while the number of public employees (pe) went down, the number of Americans (Am) went up, over those 25 years. I was trying to see how many Am were benefitted by those (pe); or, conversely, what is the workload for each pe.
    So, for 2012, it looks like 6.9% of X [# of Am] = Y [# of pe] / X = # of Am per 1pe. As math-challenged as I am, that may not be the way to calculate the numbers I want to see.

    Can you do the arithmetic for me; and compare that to 1988 numbers?

  • Anonymous

    If the HHS had instead arranged for insurance consortia to develop competing exchange websites, they would have been built on time for a reasonable tens of millions (at most) on the companies’ dime. With the funding coming from their profits, they would have been motivated to manage it effectively.

    There are hundreds, perhaps even thousands, of websites out there providing more complex eCommerce services that were developed for a small fraction of this disaster. At this point in internet history website development is well understood with plenty of effective templates to use as starting points.

    The problem is with the political process, as Boutique describes below. It’s incentivizes inefficiency, cronyism, and corruption. It will always be thus, which is why government doesn’t create jobs, it creates boondoggles.