As product manager for a public web site at PBS, I’m following the news about the development of healthcare.gov closely. From my perspective this looks like an extreme product management challenge, as illustrated in an in-depth report in the Washington Post.
Like many product managers, I’ve certainly dealt with difficult customers and stakeholders, and had to manage unclear requirements and unreasonable expectations. Those experiences, however, look like child’s play compared to the toxic mix of politics and partisanship that were the main concerns of the customers of the healthcare site. It’s easy to say that more or better developers (or product managers) could have avoided the serious start-up problems of the site, but the Post report shows that the real problems came from the people creating the requirements, not the team implementing them.
As John Dickerson writes in his summary of the Post report in Slate:
Apple and Google would never have allowed the problems that Cutler outlines in his memo to fester. But then again, Apple and Google would not have had to deal with an environment where their rivals were plotting to remove all the equipment from their product laboratories every night.
In other words, if the customers and their business are crazy, there’s only so much that the technical team can do.