Every experienced manager knows that, left to its own devices, the system will not always behave this way. The agents acting on the president’s behalf may have their own priorities and may not deem it in their interest to share information with superiors, especially if the news is bad. So the president must lean against these perverse tendencies, not only by demanding regular and detailed progress reports but also by establishing a zone of safety and encouragement for truth-tellers. The president’s subordinates at every level must be on notice that candor will be rewarded and the failure to transmit vital information will be punished.

In recent weeks, it has become clear that President Obama failed to institute such arrangements. He rejected excellent advice from many quarters to appoint an overall project manager, reporting directly to the White House, who was a skilled executive with experience implementing complex information systems. The day-to-day links between the White House and the Department of Health and Human Services frayed, and responsibility for the website shifted four times before ending up in the hands of a midlevel bureaucrat at the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services who lacked the authority to crack heads and break logjams. Although there were dozens of contractors, there was no prime contractor, a role for which CMS was ill-suited but filled by default.