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Stuart Muszynski Headshot

Government Can Learn a Few Lessons About Forgiveness

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It has been estimated that the day someone starts a new business in America, he will have violated several governmental regulations, just by not knowing that they exist. The penalties for violating these rules can range from warnings, to fines, to shutdowns, to imprisonment. Let's forget for the moment about imprisonment, which involves intentional criminal behavior. I've known businesses in all of the other categories, including a friend who started a legitimate foreclosure abatement business that was tarred, feathered and shut down by the federal government because they also were targeting the shady part of the industry.

Entrepreneurs and big business executives alike say that most violations are unintended, but that the government doesn't care. On this point, there's an old adage that I learned in law school: "Ignorance of the law is not an excuse." Government adheres to that standard -- big time!

Maybe, then, it's poetic justice that when the government went unto their own new affordable healthcare insurance business, it messed up so profoundly. As a result, both President Obama and HHS Secretary Sebelius have cowered before cameras and Congress, proclaiming mea culpa because of their own ignorance and unawareness of the enormous complexities of the website rollout.

I take them at their word -- they were perhaps naive and unprepared, but they weren't intentionally misleading, unlawful or criminal. Fortunately, stupidity is not condemned in government regulations, or the program may have been fined, prosecuted or shut down.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not an anti-Obama ideologue, nor am I a true-blue fan of the American insurance industry, in which some companies have made claims rejection in the name of "risk management" a regular part of their business models. For this and other sins, they are deserving of public policy's scrutiny and regulation.

But what I think is ironic is that, if the insurance industry inflicted inconvenience and poor business practices on the American consumer -- if they had blown the Obamacare rollout -- there likely would have been little forgiveness, compassion or understanding coming their way from Washington or the states.

Yet, forgiveness is exactly what the Obama administration wants from all of us and from the insurance industry. In this spirit, maybe the Obamacare debacle can be more than a marketing and technology primer on what not to do; maybe it also can be a teachable moment on forgiveness.

Forgiveness comes in various shapes and sizes. It spans the gamut from unconditional forgiveness advocated by some Christian denominations, to absolution based on Catholic confession, to reprieve after apologizing on the Jewish Day of Atonement, to the pragmatism of moving forward in reconciliation, as the late Nelson Mandela urged in South Africa after apartheid. We all can learn from these forgiveness hybrids -- they make the world better.

But I'm suggesting another type of forgiveness -- giving a person or business the benefit of the doubt. Not every human breach is on-purpose, anymore than cutting off another car as you're about to miss your highway exit is intentional. Most are mistakes that are based on unawareness, inexperience or both. Often, the ensuing coverups are based on embarrassment or fear of consequences, usually of humiliation, litigation or government fines.

But if we gave more people the benefit of the doubt -- especially coming from the government -- maybe we also would have more truth, accountability and self-correction in our society and in American business, as well. Few people want to be cheats, and even fewer want to fail.

A case in point illustrates the enormous possibilities of this paradigm shift, particularly because Americans are naturally forgiving. What stands in the way, though, are the presumptions that we're being intentionally lied to or disrespected.

Several years ago, the management of one of America's prominent hospitals decided that, if they discovered that one of their doctors committed malpractice, they would go to the family, present the facts, suggest a financial settlement and ask for forgiveness. While they used this strategy, they consistently had the fewest malpractice lawsuits in the country, and their malpractice insurance rates dramatically decreased. They discovered that most families wanted to forgive if they felt that they were being respected and dealt with fairly and genuinely.

So, to the government, I suggest a New Year's resolution and a new way of doing business. If you truly want to do the right thing by the American people, look first to give the benefit of the doubt, then to understand and, ultimately, to educate. If all else fails, you can always litigate, fine, shut down or incarcerate. "Gotcha" gets us nowhere. That new attitude would make business and life a lot easier, resulting in greater happiness and prosperity -- and less negativity and blame.

There's a Native American expression that's timely and appropriate: "Walk a mile in someone else's shoes before you try to judge their journey."

Now that the shoe's on the other foot, maybe forgiveness is the journey that government -- and all Americans -- need to take.

Muszynski is Founder of Purple America, a national initiative of Project Love/Values-in-Action Foundation to re-focus the American conversation to a civil, productive and respectful dialog around our shared values. To see America's shared values and get involved, go to www.PurpleAmerica.us