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The Best and the Brightest



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The administration’s effort to respond to the catastrophic rollout of the federal Obamacare exchange seems at this point to consist of having special teams of IT experts from inside and outside the government — in the president’s words, “the best and the brightest” — come in and help fix the Healthcare.gov site. 

Even if you put aside the fact that the phrase “the best and the brightest” was popularized by the title of a David Halberstam book about how smart people can do stupid things (in that case, mismanage American foreign policy and march the nation into the Vietnam War), this idea seems very problematic. 

Anyone who has been part of a federal project that involves technical work performed by contractors has got to be shaking his head today at the vision of outsiders swooping into a massive project and fixing complex mistakes. The attempt to integrate new people with very high opinions of their own technical prowess into this mind-numbingly complicated undertaking will involve a lot of unpleasant meetings that waste the time of people who should be working on the site, the endeavor will be severely hamstrung by the basic character of federal contracting work (in which the four corners of the contract are everything and rules matter more than goals), and it will all only delay the inevitable end game — which is that the contractors who screwed this up will need to be the people who unscrew it, they will do it slowly and clumsily, and they will get paid handsomely by the taxpayer for the additional work.  

I think the idea that Silicon Valley types are going to rescue the bureaucracy confuses two kinds of technical mastery: experimental innovation and consolidated management. Each has its strengths and its weaknesses, but these two visions generally do not play well together. Successful technology firms do a huge amount of trial and error, avoid over-management, and create adaptive knowledge systems that work by learning and are constantly tested against competitors. The federal bureaucracy develops and enforces uniform rules meant to apply technical knowledge it (thinks it) already possesses to a complex and chaotic world to make it simpler and more orderly — to make it do the bidding of policymakers. As Max Weber put it, “bureaucratic administration means fundamentally domination through knowledge.” The maxim of the Internet age is closer to “liberation through knowledge.”  

The former vision is built on the premise that the modern age is defined by the immense growth of technical knowledge and expertise and a key role of our social and political institutions is to apply that knowledge and expertise to society to make it more rational.  The latter vision is built on the premise that the modern age is defined by every individual’s overwhelming ignorance (or as Hayek put it, his reliance on knowledge he does not possess) and a key role of our social and political institutions is to enable local knowledge to be consolidated in practice through innumerable individual trials and errors that add up to practical progress but not to centralized expertise. Think of it as applying expert knowledge vs. channeling social knowledge. It’s the difference between how the left and the right think about a lot of policy questions, very much including health care. 

That doesn’t mean the problems with Healthcare.gov can’t or won’t be solved, of course. But it probably means they won’t be solved by infusing Silicon Valley brilliance into the process. The spirit in which this site was created was like the spirit the law seeks to impose on the health-care system: managerial, not innovative. Its early problems are almost enough to make you think that maybe the federal government shouldn’t have too much control over a health-care system badly in need of innovation and efficiency, aren’t they?



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