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Where Was the Healthcare.gov Whistleblower?

A great example of how a whistleblower could have helped the Obama administration.
January 11, 2014, 3:00pm

Garry Knight/Flickr

Think about it. The United States government's largest ever online technology product, designed to support the signature legislative achievement of perhaps the most historical presidency of our lifetimes: a failure at launch. It's not ultimately the sort of fuckup that portends doom for the Affordable Care Act—as Fox News would have you believe—but it was, as far as governmental fuckups go, pretty spectacular.

And people knew about it. A lot of them. 55 different contractors worked on healthcare.gov, likely employing thousands of people. Almost certainly a large number of those people saw the Oct. 1 cliff coming, saw that the site wasn't getting adequate load testing, saw that tests on the super-complex backend code were failing. And some large number of workers noted that they were coding two months later than originally planned. And some other large number of people may have noticed that nobody was around doing quality assurance.

The rollout problems of last fall are already blowing over, faster than even I would have expected. But just one of those coders or managers going to the press back in September or August could have avoided the entire mess, just by forcing a delayed launch and, likely, successfully pinning the fiasco on a specific contractor. A delayed launch, rather than hundreds of thousands of people getting kicked off an overloaded website (etc) or having their information dropped into an abyss, would have made all of the difference.

So why didn't someone blow the whistle? Who knows. Maybe it had something to do with a larger Snowden era whiteblower freeze, or maybe it was just bureaucracy-induced apathy. Interestingly, a whistle blown would have been overwhelmingly in the administration's favor. Delaying the rollout a month would have been several orders of magnitude better than the public relations crimescene of last October.

The thing is that whistleblowing doesn't have any inherent bias when it comes to government and, really, outing bad things usually serves government. That's what would have happened in the case of healthcare.gov: a delay and fixes.

Congress passed the False Claims Act during the Civil War to penalize contractors that defraud the government, and some 70 percent of its claims in the century and a half since have come from whistleblowers. Considering that said law includes a provision actually rewarding whistleblowers (like, with money), that percentage shouldn't be too much of a surprise. That's not to say that the healthcare.gov rollout included actual fraud, just that there was a space for a whistleblower to do real immediate good for the functioning of government.

@everydayelk