Close Enough For Government Work? Sebellius And The Irrelevance Of Job Performance

220px-Kathleen_Sebelius_official_portraitBelow is my column today on the continuing problems with the Affordable Care Act.  I believe some national health care plan was needed.  However, before passage, I spoke on Capitol Hill and criticized the poor drafting of the Act as well as the constitutional concerns over the federalism issues.  I was most surprised by simply the poor shape of the massive bill.  It was rushed through Congress to avoid having to go back to the Senate after the death of Ted Kennedy.  The result was many poorly considered provisions.  For that reason, I expected (particularly after the expenditure of such a huge amount) that the rollout would be done with particular care. I was shocked by the gross negligence shown by the Administration.  Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius repeatedly assured Congress and the public that the system was ready after almost a half billion dollars in federal funds and years of preparation.  She never informed Congress that her top tech officer (who has now resigned) refused to sign off on the program due to concerns of the lack of full testing and that various experts expressed doubts about the launch.  However, Sebelius and her aides insisted on effectively launching in the blind.  Putting aside how one may feel about national health care, this would seem an objective measure of the lack of performance.  This was the single most important task not just for Sebellius but the Administration and it was a failure.  For those who have fought hard for health care, the failure played into the hands of critics.   Yet, with a program named after a Democratic President, there seems an unwillingness to separate the merits of Obamacare from the poor administration of the rollout of the program. While officials are now profusely apologizing, it seems that (unlike most citizens) high-ranking officials are immune from performance based termination.  That is the subject of the column in USA Today.

On Oct. 1, millions of citizens came face to face with one of the most embarrassing blunders of our generation. After almost half a billion dollars spent on the computer registration system for Obamacare, the website coughed, sputtered and appeared to descend into an immediate coma as millions tried to log on. One reason is that the Obama administration never fully tested it.

For many, the greatest surprise was not that the government spent wildly on a defective system, but that the failure did not result in a single termination. While the agency’s top technology officer, Tony Trenkle, wisely is retiring, the appearance of the still employed Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius at a congressional hearing this week led many to ask a reasonable question: What does it take to lose a government job?

If recent scandals are any measure, the answer is chilling. Of course, one would have thought that a$400 million debacle would fit easily under “fireable offenses.” This is particularly the case when contractors testify that it was the administration that decided not to fully test the system. Then there is the use of a contractor that was terminated earlier in Canada for allegedly fouling up the computer system for Ontario.

The Obamacare six

During her testimony before the Senate Finance Committee, Sebelius admitted that the website is still “not where we need to be.” That is quite an understatement. One government estimate put the number of people registered in the first 24 hours at six. If that seems a joke, it was. In a Saturday Night Live skit, Kate McKinnon played Sebelius and noted, “Millions of Americans are visiting, which is great news. Unfortunately, the site was only designed to handle six users at a time.” Still, the Obama administration insists it will not release the current number of actually registered people until the middle of November while admitting that it will be low.

However, if history is any judge, Sebelius can take heart. Her job should be secure. Neither crimes nor incompetence seems to meet the standard for termination for federal employment. Take National Intelligence Director James Clapper. In a public hearing before Congress, Clapper denied that the NSA was collecting “any type of data at all on millions or hundreds of millions of Americans.” That was clearly false. Clapper later admitted that he gave “the least untruthful” statement that he could think of. That, of course, would still make it a lie and thus perjury. However, Clapper was neither prosecuted nor fired.

Irrelevant waste

Likewise, waste is something that does not even register in Washington. The Pentagon ordered a dozen Italian-built C-27J Spartans at nearly $50 million a pop only to roll them directly from the factories into mothballs. That’s right, $567 million of aircraft sent directly to a facility in Arizona dubbed “the boneyard.” Then there is the $772 million spent for 30 Russian Mi-17 helicopters that an inspector general report found could not be flown by the Afghans. Then there is the $34 million spent to build a huge headquarters longer than a football field for the Marines in Afghanistan with a theater, special operations rooms and other amenities. The Pentagon did so despite the objections from the commander that the Marines neither needed nor wanted the building. An inspector general found that the 64,000-square-foot facility “will probably be demolished” without being used.

Even when lives are lost, negligence is not a basis for termination, as shown in the Benghazi scandal. The State Department’s own internal review found “systemic failures and leadership and management deficiencies” leading to the deaths of four Americans, including the U.S. ambassador to Libya, Christopher Stevens. But the Accountability Review Board “recognizes that poor performance does not ordinarily constitute a breach of duty that would serve as a basis for disciplinary action but is instead addressed through the performance management system.” In other words, even with four dead and an international crisis, the officials responsible could only be “reassigned.”

Arrogance of power

Given this history, one can understand Sebelius’ response to critics that “the majority of people calling for me to resign … are people I don’t work for.” Indeed, the people whom she works for measure success along political, not performance, lines.

Accordingly, new contracts have been issued to fix the Obamacare registration system. And, in the ultimate triumph of hope over experience, Sebelius is promising to personally ensure their success.

Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law at George Washington University and a member of USA TODAY’s Board of Contributors.

USA Today November 8, 2013

36 thoughts on “Close Enough For Government Work? Sebellius And The Irrelevance Of Job Performance”

  1. “Putting aside how one may feel about national health care, this would seem an objective measure of the lack of performance.”

    Here is the central problem regarding putting aside how I fee about national health care- you cannot do this. I would love peaches-n-cream and free everything for everyone but we have to live in reality.

    In reality a national health care plan is bringing politics in the mix. And since pols have the authority and power politics will be the single biggest determining factor in said plan. You have to factor this into your calculus for a national health plan. Not recognizing that and still wanting national health care plans is naive at best. After realizing politics will drive national health care – good luck with your plan.

    Clearly the top tech person is not a pol as he used objective rational logical thought and was not clouded by politics in not signing-off. Pols, still rational and logical, were going to launch b/c politics dictated so. Politics trumps the day – you can always apologize later.

  2. Given that we already have a huge amount of socialism, aka communism, Karl Marx, the AHC Act would appear to be a poor reason to hate Obama if one were truly laisez faire. I could give you 10 or more better reasons to hate Obama for anyone that is truly laisez faire in viewpoint, like myself. Words & ideas like Tea Party & even Republican are pretending to be laisez faire, without even attacking the worst western government trait against freedom & laisez faire in general, and that is Graduated Income Tax. Is there anything more destructive to a society & freedom, short of a major domestic war? It is also destructive of production, by rewarding sloth & penalising hard work & creativity. It may be true that health care run by the government directly, increases their hold & could lead to higher taxes & money inflation, but its the one thing most everyone needs if he/she is getting screwed & robbed by income tax anyway. Only Ron & Rand Paul have enough clout & integrity to fight the AHC, since they would get rid of the rest & so make everything more affordable. Hate Obama for the nasty edicts he has signed into law reducing the Constitution to an old piece of parchment. Hate him for his BS economics. The AHC Act is clearly a hasty rehash of the Massachusetts healthcare system; if it is improved enough to work its foes will stop calling it Obamacare, which is an unfair tag for someone who never cared about the people anyway.

  3. “The cognitive dissonance there astounds me. My former stepchildren, their children, and their mother all live outside of Houston. They have all depended on food stamps, Medicaid and welfare throughout their lives. Yet they are rabid Republicans and hate President Obama. Go figure,”

    Juliet, we are SO on the same page here. I think it may come down to just hating who our President is, despite any of his policies which would help them in their situations. “Voting against their own best interests”, to nth degree.

  4. randyjet: “This same thing happened in aviation with the last plane I flew, the EMB-170. The FMS and all the avionics were designed by Honeywell which did not work well at all.”

    Your comment at 9:37 works well with your first comment. Your observation that a dedicated work force is preferable is one I agree with. Do you remember the profit maximizing program known as JIT: Just In Time Inventory? A company that had a coterie of parts suppliers that manufactured and kept parts on hand based on the business plans of a product manufacturer (like autos) could save the manufacturer money and streamline the manufacturing process. Inventory items held by the primarily manufacturer were losses, not ‘stored’ profits. It’s a plan that works to the advantage of some industries if well controlled.

    That model though became increasingly applied to non-manufactured aspects of a company’s needs and the workforce. The advent of JIT became rolled into the breakup of large industries (and many government functions) with the idea that skills and expertise and labor could fit the JIT model. Contracting as needed would work just as well. Doesn’t work that way with ‘soft’ and ‘wet’ ware quite as well was my observation. I have some concerns about ceding so many of a drivers function to on-board computers in cars. Bad code delivered on time can kill you.

    You be careful in those planes RJ.

  5. Juliet,
    I suspect most of us who frequent this blog, including you and me, are pretty much on the same page regarding the war on drugs actually increases the crime rate rather than decreases it. There are drugs that really do need to be controlled, such as “bath salts” and Krokodil, but marijuana and some of the milder drugs are not such a major health problem that it justifies a vast expenditure of money and usurpation of civil rights. The prison-industrial complex needs to be fed and they wield immense political power.

    Speaking as one who has a lot of experience with drug abusers, I understand both the cravings of the user, and the market demands those cravings create. The war on drugs actually creates the demand for designer drugs such as bath salts and Krokodil. If addicts and habitual users were able to get the milder drugs without a hassle, then ER doctors would not be seeing people who look like the Krokodil users shown in the photographs on this web page about the stuff:
    [Fair warning, these photographs are not for the squeamish]

  6. Maybe it’s just me, but…

    Obama’s most lingering achievement in office, turning to dust.

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