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It is also a story of an Obama Administration obsessed with health care reform policy but above the nitty-gritty of implementing it. No one in the White House meetings leading up to the launch had any idea whether the technology worked. Early on, Lambrew, highly regarded as a health care policy expert and advocate for medical care for the poor, kept Park off the invitation list for the planning meetings, according to two people who worked on the White House staff prior to the launch. (The White House declined to make Lambrew available for an interview.) The only explanation Park offers for his exclusion is that "The CTO helps set government technology policy but does not get involved in specific programs. The agencies do that." The other attendees were also policy people, pollsters or communications specialists focused largely on the marketing and political challenges of enrolling Americans.
McDonough, as chief of staff, was supposed to be tending to everything associated with the rollout, including the technology. But he and Lambrew simply accepted the assurances from the CMS staff that everything was a go. Two friends and former colleagues of McDonough's say they spoke to him 36 hours prior to the launch, and in both conversations he assured them that everything was working. "When we turn it on tomorrow morning," he told one friend, "we're gonna knock your socks off."
Months later, when I asked him in February if he should have worried more about the website, McDonough admitted, "Would I do things differently if I had a chance to? Absolutely."
1. Return of the Campaign Geeks
Early on the morning of Friday, Oct. 18, Gabriel Burt, whose résumé actually includes work as a rocket scientist, woke up in a room at the DoubleTree in Columbia, Md., about 35 miles outside Washington. Burt, 30 at the time, had flown there from Chicago the night before, toting an overnight bag for what he thought might be a two- or three-day trip. By the following weekend his wife would be flying in to resupply him. He didn't get home until Dec. 6.
Burt is the chief technology officer at a Chicago company called Civis Analytics. Park, the White House CTO, had connected with him via the White House political office. How did Obama's political people know about Burt's firm? Because Civis is the home of the Obama-campaign whiz kids who re-engineered politics in 2012. Burt and a team of coders and data analysts had developed tools that could sift data so finely that finding and tracking persuadable voters to make sure they turned out to vote was brought to a whole new level.