POLITICS
10/22/2013 03:46 pm ET Updated Oct 23, 2013

A Spoonful Of Sugar Is Not Going To Fix A Website

Now that the government shutdown is over, the bungled rollout of the federal Obamacare exchange website is drawing the attention it might have otherwise drawn weeks ago. So President Barack Obama took to the Rose Garden on Monday to do a bit of crisis management. There, he correctly maintained that "there's no sugarcoating" the problems that people trying to use the website are experiencing. The problem is, he's still doing a lot of sugarcoating!

OBAMA: Of course, you've probably heard that healthcare.gov, the new website where people can apply for health insurance and browse and buy affordable plans in most states, hasn't worked as smoothly as it was supposed to work, and the number of people who've visited the site has been overwhelming, which has aggravated some of these underlying problems.

First of all, as near as I can tell, the way the website is "supposed to work" is "it is supposed to allow people to shop for, and obtain health insurance." Since this is not what's currently happening, a better way of saying it hasn't worked "smoothly" is it hasn't worked "at all." Also, while it's perfectly true that sometimes a high volume of visitors can overwhelm a website and cause outages, that's not what's happening here. The site is having trouble seamlessly accessing various government databases to collect information that enrollees need to do their shopping, and it's providing bad information to insurers for those who have successfully managed to enroll.

Everyone really needs to stop talking about volume being the problem, especially because Obama seems to be using that argument to say that ordinary Americans' desperate need to obtain affordable insurance is keeping the website from looking good for the press. "Oh, if only all you uninsured people would stop aggravating our precious web portal!"

I find it hard to fault the way the editors of the Washington Post have responded to Monday's Rose Garden Spectacular.

The most serious consequence of the computer failures may be to dent public confidence. This would be gravely damaging, since the program requires a large number of healthy people to sign up in order to make it viable to support the sick. Mr. Obama must do everything he can to erase doubts. Good thing he called in the techies to fix the site and is offering other methods for registering, including by phone and in person.

But as the Post's editors go on to opine, Obama "must also pay more attention to credibility and transparency," adding that "administration is not going to restore confidence through secrecy and damage control."

That's exactly right. Over the weekend (and not for the first time) I had the occasion to revisit my favorite scene from "Bailout," by Neil Barofsky, the former Special Inspector General for the Troubled Asset Relief Program (SIGTARP). In it, he interviews Kris Belisle, the woman he eventually, wisely, hired to handle communications for his office. Here's the section that applies perfectly to the situation everyone finds themselves in with the Obamacare website -- I will highlight the hell out of the parts that I'd most like to sink in:

"We'll be completely transparent with the press," Kris responded, correctly presuming that she already had the job. "We'll admit and even highlight our mistakes."

"Okay. I understand the not lying, but my guess is that as a start-up, we're going to have more than our fair share of screwups. Why would we want to bring them to the press's attention?" I asked, intrigued.

"Because if we do, we'll earn the press's trust. They'll know we're not spinning like everyone else. SIGTARP will quickly become the only credible source for information in Washington about TARP. We might be embarrassed at times and disclose things that we could -- and others would -- easily hide, but we'll shock the press with our honesty. No one else does this, and before long, we'll have a built in defense when we're attacked. No matter what they hear, the press will come to us first and believe us, because we'll prove to them that we tell the truth."

The merits of the strategy are so extremely obvious that it's confounding that these two are the only people in Washington who have ever seemed to figure it out. The above passage should be carved on stone tablets and heaved at people.

This is one of the Beltway's cultural problems. There's a reason I bolded and underlined the part where Belisle says, "No one else does this." Spoiler alert: It's because no one else does this.

According to the emerging "what went wrong" narrative, there seem to have been ample forewarnings that the website wouldn't be ready for primetime. But culturally, Washington is a place where no one wants to be the bearer of bad news, and every gang of bureaucrats proceeds from the notion that "job one" is ensuring that the axe falls heaviest on another gang of bureaucrats. Consequently, what we got in the lead-up to the launch of Healthcare.gov was a complicated square dance of blame avoidance that obscured the pending disaster.

There's no doubt that if the website had been perfect from day one, it would have totally been a mitzvah. But we're past that now. The optimal launch of the website is a blown opportunity -- it's over and it's done and it's never coming back. The only thing to do now is fix the damn website as quickly as possible. What would really help matters is some more forthrightness and specifics about what's wrong, and what's being done to repair the situation, and how long it's likely to take. Obama should be more candid and more contrite and more willing to make himself the target of slings and arrows.

Yes, the launch has been embarrassing. And yes, admitting to a cock-up is something that seems like it's going to feel really terrible before you do it. I mean, you are going to tell a bunch of reporters that you made a mistake. That's clearly going to suck! But if you follow the Belisle Doctrine, what you'll discover is that reporters are going to be so blown away by the fact that you aren't spinning them that they may not know how to react. They may even choose to give you the thin sliver of a benefit of the doubt. That's not bad! And offering cogent, candid specifics will, at the very least, help ground the discussion, and prevent deserved criticism from spinning off into hysterics.

What's more is that the difficult road ahead needs energy, and there is nothing quite like the exhilarating, spine-stiffening energy of fully taking responsibility for something. What is the risk of taking responsibility? Are you worried that it might catch on in Washington?

If the Obama administration can draw anything valuable from its current travails over this website, it's this: the challenge is at least worthy of the age. More and more, ordinary Americans are using the internet to seek out information and solve complex problems -- and they are doing so with the expectations that their demands will be met seamlessly and instantaneously. Fixing this problem honors those expectations, and faces the modern world squarely.

In addition, surmounting this challenge is of great benefit to both government and those who seek to govern. It's going to give future presidents, both Republicans and Democrats, a new lease on vision and innovation, and the sphere of what is possible is going to grow. And ordinary Americans who have experience in this sort of technological innovation stand a better chance of running for office themselves -- they'll look at Washington and think, "Finally, there's a place there for someone like me." Slowly, we might even begin to find people steeped in the modern world wresting control of powerful legislative committees from the old men with bad hair who never learned how to set the timers on their VCRs.

You will likely never meet a sincerely well-intentioned individual who isn't a little bit of a complete screw-up at heart. Screwing up completely is basically the first step to making the world a better place. But the most highly effective well-intentioned individuals own their screw-ups. Obama should consider giving that a try, if only because when he does so, every reporter's head will explode from the shock.

Naturally, if the next round of repairs to the Obamacare website don't do the trick, he'll get another chance. But as with the launch of website, the optimal occasion of taking responsibility is now a blown opportunity -- it's over and it's done and it's never coming back.

[Would you like to follow me on Twitter? Because why not?]

This story appears in Issue 72 of our weekly iPad magazine, Huffington, available Friday, Oct. 25 in the iTunes App store.

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