Government Tech Recruiting Still Overshadowed by HealthCare.gov Blunder

Todd Park, former chief technology officer of the US, prepares to testify on Capitol Hill

Todd Park, former chief technology officer of the US, prepares to testify on Capitol Hill J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Democrats are concerned Todd Park’s recent grilling could hurt his efforts to recruit top tech talent.

Todd Park left his role as White House chief technology officer nearly three months ago to help the government recruit top tech talent from Silicon Valley.

But his return to Washington this week for a grilling by the House Science and Technology Committee on his role in last year’s disastrous rollout of HealthCare.gov certainly couldn’t have been a boon to those efforts.

And that has Democrats on the committee concerned.

“I know people personally who have been contacted by Mr. Park, who he's trying to recruit – bright, young innovative stars from the IT world – to take a break from the multimillion contracts that they have in Silicon Valley and come out to Washington, D.C., and try to solve problems,” said Rep. Eric Swalwell, D-Calif, during the hearing Wednesday. “I cannot imagine that this [hearing] helps him make that case. In fact, this probably makes it much harder.”

Rep. Scott Peters, also a California Democrat, concurred, lamenting the sight of Congress “pulling people out of the bureaucracy and beating them up.”

Addressing Park directly, Peters said: “We have to be very sensitive about how we treat people like you and like those folks who can be in the private sector making much more money, who are willing to give up their time, to delay their careers and to help the government.”

Park appeared before the committee to answer Republicans’ charge that he knew more about the site’s failings when it launched than he’s let on.

Park, who’s spent the last few months pitching outside innovators on the opportunity to join government and shake up the often-stultifying federal bureaucracy, has always maintained he served as a high-level adviser on the project, not as an on-the-ground project manager.

To buttress Park’s position, Democrats on the committee released a report on Park’s involvement – or lack thereof – in the effort to develop the site before it went live.

But the portrait of events revealed by the Democrat’s report might also give pause to these potential recruits Park has been pitching.

Emails cited in the report show Park trying to take an active role in the development of the site, requesting briefings and meetings. But time and again, he finds himself rebuffed by officials from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, the small federal agency tasked with actually building the site.

For example, when Park inquired about attending a “readiness review” meeting in mid-July as a “fly on the wall,” the former chief operating officer of CMS denied the federal CTO’s request and responded, “Flys [sic] on the wall are seldom invisible and often distracting!!!!”

In mid-September of that year, when CMS officials informed the White House a Spanish-language version of the website would not be ready by the Oct. 1 launch date, emails show Park offering to roll up his sleeves: “If it would be even remotely helpful, I would be more than happy to join the technical conversation,” he said in a Sept. 12 email.

The offer is declined. Instead, Park can help with “messaging,” a senior CMS official wrote in a follow-up email; the agency didn’t need him “focusing on the IT or trying to come up with creative solutions,” according to the official’s email.

After Park continued to request attending meetings, the former CMS official even jokes about installing security cameras with facial recognition software to keep Park from gaining admittance.

The Democratic report concluded: “It is hard to reconcile the claim that Park was deeply involved in the development of HealthCare.gov with the reality that Park could not even get access to the website experience as it was being developed.”

If that bears out, it’s certainly helpful in defending Park from accusations he misled Congress about his role in the development of the site.

But it’s not an altogether enticing message for recruiting outsiders: Leave Silicon Valley to fix Washington and be thwarted by the bureaucracy every step of the way?

Asked in a recent New York Times interview why the best and the brightest should consider federal service, Park’s successor Megan Smith enthused, “You can affect millions of people.”

Yes – but only if they let you in the meetings.

An earlier version of this story misstated the area Rep. Eric Swalwell's congressional district covers. It covers  parts of Alameda County and Contra Costa County. 

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