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Uncle Sam is actually good at building websites
Just not Healthcare.gov
 
While doing your taxes is a pain, dealing with IRS.gov is not.
While doing your taxes is a pain, dealing with IRS.gov is not. (Illustration | Thinkstock)

The end of the shutdown has switched attention from the Republicans' incompetent attempt to kill ObamaCare to the Democrats' incompetent attempt to implement it.

"We're bringing in the A-team," HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius told CNN in response to questions about when the horribly glitchy Affordable Care Act (ACA) website will be fixed. The unflattering implication: Up until now, the administration has been using a B-team to design and build the most visible part of President Obama's most important domestic achievement.

But really, who would have guessed that a bunch of government bureaucrats with three years and $600 million of taxpayer dollars to play with might fail to supervise the building of a historically important website? Well, I wouldn't have.

Yes, that's right: I'm actually surprised they blew it. Here's why: Lost amid the well-deserved laughter over the horrible (and that's what it is) ObamaCare website is a key fact. The administration oversees scores of websites, many of which are heavily dependent on consumers providing significant amounts of personal information, not unlike the health care site. Most of the sites predate Obama, but have been updated since he took over in 2009 and are now far more user friendly than they were before. In other words, to say the administration doesn't know how to build a website isn't accurate — it just didn't know how to build this one. Too bad for them it was the most high-profile site of all, and attached to the president's legacy.

What other sites can possibly compare to the scale and scope of ObamaCare? Here are a few:

IRS.gov. Like you, I hate paying my taxes. But I have to admit, this site is pretty good. Plenty of Americans agree: Around 100 million taxpayers filed their returns directly on the Internal Revenue Service's website last spring. When the IRS first began allowing electronic filing in the early 1990s, there were glitches, but they were slowly figured out. Today, as painful as it is to pay one's taxes, e-filing is actually a pretty smooth way to do so.

VA.gov. The Veterans Administration website, which also collects quite a bit of personal data, is also pretty efficient, operates smoothly, and is well-organized, veterans say. Health care for the millions of heroes who have served is complex, the benefits vary, and in the end, the site also offers timely and compassionate assistance in helping with veterans' burials. The VA has a different problem, though: A huge backlog of hundreds of thousands of disability cases of veterans who are having trouble getting their benefits processed. But that's largely a manpower shortage issue; the website itself is quite good.

TSP.gov. Some two million federal employees — and millions of retirees — depend on this site to manage their finances. It's a complex site covering the many decisions that must be made concerning investing, saving for college, retirement planning, and so forth. As a federal employee many years ago, I wish I had this site then — it's incredibly clear and easy to use.

And then there's Healthcare.gov...

Here's the thing that bothers me most about this horrible website. Given that opponents have spent years calling ObamaCare "unwieldy," a "monstrosity," a "train wreck," and worse, you'd think the administration would have bent over backwards to project an image of competence and efficiency. You'd think they would have done whatever it took from the very beginning to make sure the site was perfect. That every line of code was right. That pages didn't freeze. That it did what it was supposed to do. Wouldn't you spend weeks testing and troubleshooting before rolling it out? They clearly didn't, and this laughable fire-aim-ready strategy has given the very people who want it to fail fresh ammo. Because the preventable wasn't prevented, this has to go down as one of the most incompetent things this administration has ever done.

I'm guessing that no one in the administration thought of actually studying the best practices behind the above-named government sites and others like them. Then there are the countless private-sector sites that would have been useful to study as well. The White House had years to do so and apparently didn't. Just think: If his administration had been more thoughtful, more diligent, and better organized, the president wouldn't have had to come into the Rose Garden the other day and tell us that a website, in the overall scheme of things, isn't that important. For something that's not important, they cleared 60 minutes of the president's valuable time, invited people from all over the country to attend, rolled out a pair of teleprompters, and asked TV networks to carry his remarks. Gosh, that sounds pretty important to me. If only the White House was as attentive building a website as it is to staging a TV appearance.

 
Paul Brandus is an award-winning member of the White House press corps and the founder of WestWingReports.com.

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