The technocratic idea is that you put a bunch of smart, competent people in government — folks who really want the thing to work — and they’ll make it happen. But “smart, competent people” are not a generic quantity; they’re incredibly domain-specific. Most academics couldn’t run a lemonade stand. Most successful entrepreneurs wouldn’t be able to muster the monomaniacal devotion needed to get a Ph.D. Neither group produces many folks who can consistently generate readable, engaging writing on a deadline. And none of us would be able to win a campaign for Congress.
Yet in my experience, the majority of people in these domains think that they could do everyone else’s job better, if they weren’t so busy with whatever it is they’re doing so well. It’s the illusion of omnicompetence, and in the case of HealthCare.gov, it seems to have been nearly fatal.
The policy people handed out impossible orders to the technical staff; when the technical staff couldn’t deliver their impossibility, they decided that the problem was incompetence. This percolated all the way down the line, and quite probably back up again — why bother explaining things if the people you’re doing the explaining to are idiots? The supercilious tone that Henry Chao, the Medicare agency’s deputy information officer, took toward congressmen — particularly Republican congressmen — in his recent testimony sounded a lot like I did 15 years ago when I told a client just how stupid they were being. (That was a mistake I made only once, thank God — and my boss rightly ripped my head off after the meeting was over.) It sounded like a man who was fed up with all the fools who surround him.