Reading it, I was reminded of the story someone told me about how his company buys an item from a distributor for which the Defense Department pays that distributor ten times as much. The gist of the story was, 'See how inefficient government is!'
It struck me, hearing that story, how powerfully that particular myth has taken hold--and, how ironic that the premise of that myth is the superior imagination and efficiency of private enterprise.
Think about it. the U.S. Government buys almost everything that it buys from the private sector through a bidding process. A contract is awarded to the lowest bidder. In such a process, how could a price be inflated by a factor of ten? The only answer must be that vendors collude--certainly with no formal cooperation!--to make inflated bids. The lowest bidder wins the contract, but undercuts the competition only by offering the least inflated bid.
So much for the efficiency of the private sector. (But, three cheers for its imagination.)
The Healthcare.gov fiasco is different in some ways. According to news reports, vendor contracts were awarded on a no-bid basis. Still, fundamentally, the fact remains that the work on the website was private sector work, not public sector work.
This whole train of thought leads me to thinking about the U.S. Government Printing Office. The USGPO dates to an 1813 act of Congress, who determined that the U.S. Government should "make information regarding the work of the three branches of Government available to all Americans." The Congress of the United States in 1813 did not farm out that vital task to private vendors through a bidding process. Even today, the publications of Congress and federal agencies are produced by the United States Government, itself, through the GPO. It works well today, and has worked well for 200 years.
Twenty years into the Internet age, we have no U.S. Government Web Designer. Today, I visited USAJobs.gov and found job listings for web professionals in the Justice Department, the Agriculture Department, the Department of Homeland Security, the Congress, and many, many others.
Now, certainly it makes a lot of sense that each of these agencies should manage their own webpages and update their own content. In the circumstance of the new healthcare website, reflecting a massive, interagency effort, it makes sense that the individual agency web professionals could not really have been expected to construct Healthcare.gov. But the question is why the answer was to award the contract to--
- CGI Federal
- Booz Allen Hamilton
- and, perhaps, as many as forty-three others
The answer, in general, is because of a presumption at work in our culture and our government that the work of private sector vendors is better, more imaginative, more entrepreneurial, and more accountable. But the results are not always quite so impressive.
It is not as though the potential costs of privatization are not known. A 2006 report by the Congressional Research Service found that
Hiring private firms to carry out government work creates great management challenges for government administrators. Should an agency fail to have well-trained personnel and effective oversight procedures in place, its utilization of private providers can result in waste, fraud, and abuse.and
Privatization does not always lead to cost savings or better service. In some instances, private firms have had significantly higher cost overruns than government agencies in the performance of services. In other instances, private firms have performed work that has been criticized as being grossly inadequate.As the CRS observed, there is plenty of blame for government agencies that cannot oversee the work of private vendors efficiently. But the litany of complaints known as long ago as 2006 should make plain that the disastrous rollout of the Healthcare.gov website cannot be a complete surprise. Somehow, though, the myth of the private sector's superiority remains undisturbed. David Brooks still says things like, "Republicans win elections when Democrats overreach by asking government to do things it can't do," and we simply accept that as an accurate account of what has happened.
Let there be no mistaking me: the Obamacare rollout is an unqualified and inexcusable disaster. But it also has been a playground for lazy, ignorant misinformation about our politics and government. CBS News's Major Garrett has earned wide praise from the Right for his performance at the November 14 White House Press Conference. Garrett asked the President, in part
Do you not believe, sir, the American people deserve a deeper, more transparent accountability from you as to why you said it over and over and when your own statistics, published in the Federal Register, alerted your policy staff, and I presume you, to the fact that millions of Americans would, in fact, probably fall into the very gap you are trying to administratively fix now?What Major Garrett and none of his colleagues in the press ever answered was, if this information had so long ago appeared in the Federal Register, why had they never reported it?
Myths and stupidity everywhere. When will we do better?