Monday, October 21, 2013

First rule of governing: Stay on message

There is so much good in the Affordable Care Act, and I am confident it will have lasting value for the country.  There is an undeniable and important need for people to have health insurance and not be subject to arbitrary decisions by insurers about pre-existing conditions, coverage limits, and the like.  And those, after all, are the main features of the law.  But sometimes I wonder if the President has speechwriters who understand about the sound bites the media are likely to pick up-- words that distract people from those attributes of the law.  Here's the portion of his remarks that I heard over and over on the radio after his speech about the computer problems with the health care exchange:

There's no sugarcoating it. The website has been too slow. People have getting stuck during the application process. And I think it's fair to say that nobody's more frustrated by that than I am. Precisely because the product is good, I want the cash registers to work, I want the checkout lines to be smooth, so I want people to be able to get this great product. 

Nobody's more frustrated by that than I am.

With respect, sir, no one is concerned about your frustration. This is a time to show empathy to the thousands of people who have been through the unsuccessful interactions with the federal exchange system. 

I want the cash registers to work.

OMG, what a terrible metaphor! This is not a time to portray health insurance as just another internet product, nor the federal government as an entity solely concerned with taking your money.

Meanwhile, Cheryl Clark, Senior Quality Editor at HealthLeaders Media, noted the tin ear of the bureaucracy on her Facebook page:

In case you missed it, last night embattled sent this message. Note the "easier than ever" qualifier.

From HHS spokesperson Joanne Peters: "As part of our ongoing efforts to make improvements every day, new content is being featured on in response to user feedback. It's now easier than ever to preview plan information, access a downloadable application form and find in-person help in local communities. We're giving users more information to make the decision that's right for them about how to apply and enroll in affordable health coverage."

This was an administration that was so good at messaging during its election campaigns. I really wish they would get better at it while governing. The stakes are very high.


Anonymous said...

Only if they begin to do what they say they are going to do. Time for this President to roll up his sleeves and do more than shake his finger and tell us that no one is more upset than he is. He is hardly wending his way through the web sites and myriad applications that the ordinary folks are. If he actually is so empathic, he should insist that he and all the other politicos in Washington actually have the same healthcare the rest of us have. Until then, he might have some troubling getting much of anyone to listen.

Paul Levy said...

I don't think it does him much good with the public to blame his own agencies when something goes wrong. I know he can't be watching everything in the government, but they all work for him.

It is more powerful when a leader takes ownership than when he expresses anger at his own team.

The Nightly Business Report also made the point about how shallow its sounds when he expresses frustration, when some people have spent hours of time trying to use the site.

I think a simple apology would have been more effective.