Politics Disrupts The One Techie Who Could Fix Healthcare.gov

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Pitch-Off. Tonight. Boston.

Technologists are rushing to shield Todd Park, the President’s Chief Technology officer, from a Republican witch hunt to find the cause of heatlhcare.gov’s epic failure. Park was subpoenaed to testify Today on how the federal e-commerce website is still not functional, but government insiders fear the misguided blame could derail the one geek who could actually fix the website.

“Instead of continuing to fix Healthcare.gov (a mess he did not make), Mr. Park has to spend his hours preparing for his testimony,” explains a new petition microsite, with supporters including noted open government authors Tim O’Reilly and Eric Ries.

Park is an easy target: he’s the president’s senior technology advisor, brought a health tech company public, and was the chief tech guy at the Department of Health and Human Services. Since the website crashed, Park was re-assigned from his White House role to get healthcare.gov functional before the key Thanksgiving break.

Any politician with surface knowledge of the website’s failings would reasonably haul Park before the national limelight for an explanation. Unfortunately for the House Oversight Committee members seeking answers, Park probably doesn’t know much.

Since leaving HHS, he’s had a full-time-plus job trying to re-organizing the federal government for a handful of ambitious items.

  • Opening up government data for health, education, law enforcement, just like Ronald Reagan did for the satellite data that now powers GPS.
  • Create PayPal-like wire transfer service for foreign aid, to cut down on corruption in money transfers
  • Re-work all federal websites to be run by function, rather than department.
  • Create a permanent set of “innovation fellows” that continues to work on tech projects, regardless of which party is in power.

Even if he was on the original healthcare.gov team, Park couldn’t have functioned as more than a distant advice-dispensing sage on a mountaintop. “Healthcare.gov is a project developed, staffed, managed, and housed at Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services.) Part of Todd Park’s role, as U.S. Chief Technology Officer, is to serve as a White House liaison,” a White House spokesperson writes to me in an email.

But, now, instead of fixing the website, Park is preparing for a congressional grilling in front of the entire country. Democrats and the LetToddWork petition points a finger squarely at Oversight Chairman Rep. Darrell Issa for issuing the subpoena. Issa accused Park on Fox News, of “engaging in a pattern of interference and false statements,” referencing documents that suggest the healthcare website could handle about one-tenth of the users Park claimed it could.

However, the White House is just as much to blame for Todd becoming a political football as Congressman Issa. Healthcare.gov has been mired in secrecy: little data on enrollment numbers, no access to the website source code, an insider contracting process, and no access to the memos of the website builder before the crash.

It’s the oversight committee’s job to figure out what went wrong, and if the White House can be trusted to fix the problem. The Administration’s bizarre and abject secrecy has forced it to frantically look everywhere.

“As a distinguished technology expert who worked at HHS before transferring to the White House, the Committee expects Todd Park to provide unique testimony about problems plaguing HealthCare.gov,” a spokesman from the oversight committee tells me in an email.

Oversight says that Park has taken time to do media interviews after he took over on October 1st, so he should likewise be available for testimony. But, it’s not clear why he has to testify before the before the crucial December 1st date.

The committee members also seem oblivious that this simple information-fishing exercise could paint a big, red target on Park’s back as the next Obamacare scapegoat. If the website isn’t functional in 3 weeks, it’ll be easy to blame him.

Park is caught in the middle of this  mess. It’s a perfect example of why good people so often leave government. Let’s hope Park can weather the political circus.