Obama's Trauma Team

How an unlikely group of high-tech wizards revived Obama's troubled HealthCare.gov website

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Photograph by Stephen Voss for TIME

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Soon after the campaign, the group formed a company to sell its services to nonprofits, governments and private companies. Its sole investor is Google executive chairman Eric Schmidt, who had helped organize their work as an informal Obama campaign adviser. The Civis website describes its creation this way: "Our company was born in a large backroom of the Obama 2012 re-election headquarters. We called it the analytics cave ... From millions of data points, we constructed the most accurate voter targeting models ever used in a national campaign. We predicted the election outcome in every battleground state within one point. And our work guided decisionmaking and resource optimization across the campaign ... This company is our next step," the website continues. "We are taking our team outside The Cave to solve the world's biggest problems using Big Data."

In fact, Obamacare had indirectly become a Civis client. Following the passage of the Affordable Care Act, a nonprofit called Enroll America was formed with the goal of boosting enrollment in the coming insurance exchanges through grassroots organizing and targeted advertising. Enroll America is funded--in "the tens of millions," says its president, Anne Filipic, a former Obama campaign worker--not only by some political groups sympathetic to health care reform, like Families USA, but also by businesses that will benefit from people enrolling, chief among them insurance companies and pharmaceutical manufacturers. The organization became one of Civis' first and biggest clients.

Before the website crashed on Oct. 1, this kind of marketing-oriented data crunching was seen as central to the drama of whether Obamacare would succeed. The political intrigue and punditry around the launch was mostly about whether people would come to the website exchanges, not what would happen to them once they got there.

Through the summer of 2013, David Simas, who then had the title of White House deputy senior adviser for communications, gave rounds of interviews detailing how big data, much of it provided to Enroll America by Civis, was being used to target specific precincts, say, in Miami or Houston, to identify the uninsured, make contact with them--"We want multiple touches," Simas told me--and lure them into enrolling. When I interviewed Simas in September, he assured me that "everything has been tested and is working perfectly ... Our challenge is getting the right people to show up."

McDonough, in telling associates that the Obamacare launch was consuming an hour or two of his every day, similarly focused on the communications and outreach planning rather than the technology.

The press, too, concentrated on the purported marketing and enrollment hurdles. One favorite theme was that the White House had brought back its 2012 Obama-campaign whiz kids for an encore data-crunching, polling and messaging blitz, which is why Simas, a campaign pollster, data analyst and message maven, had assumed center stage .

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