"They had one job!" should have been the first words out of President Obama's mouth (or maybe the second or third following some choice expletives) when he was told how badly the Affordable Care Act (ACA) website was malfunctioning. That the much hyped website is atrocious enough to make airport delays seem pleasant, is not terribly shocking, huge projects like this often arrive with "glitches" but utter failure is inexcusable. What has been shocking thus far is the administration's response to this crisis. But it's not too late; by following some time tested crisis communications strategies, this can be saved.
President Obama and his team ran two of the smartest, tech-savviest, most forward-thinking campaigns ever run in '08 and '12, and yet they did not approach this monumental task with the same fortitude. Leaving aside the meta question of why the rollout of the ACA was not run as a full out political campaign, the immediate question is: Why hasn't anyone lost their jobs over this? President Obama dismissed an extremely talented, decorated and respected general for insulting him (and eviscerating the chain of the command...) but no heads have rolled over this. Nor, shockingly, has anyone pro-actively resigned. Meanwhile, websites like Amazon.com successfully handle upwards of eight million visitors a day with no problem.
How were the titans of e-commerce not consulted about the website? Before launching the reelection campaign, Jim Messina went on a listening tour to Silicon Valley and Hollywood seeking out the best and brightest for advice. Why wasn't the same care taken to launch the Affordable Care Act? How is it possible that intelligent, well-informed, educated people were unaware that October 1st was the day that healthcare signups was starting? It's not just the website that was a problem. How else could 44 percent of American be unsure if "Obamacare is still a law" as late as this past August?
The White House needs to follow just a few steps to right this very quickly sinking ship -- or at least stop it from taking on more water.
Step One: Admit there is a problem
The White House is almost there on this one. While President Obama made an impassioned speech yesterday about the difficulties people are facing with the website, he (and Democrats in Congress) continue to use the "popularity" of the ACA as the excuse for why the website does not work.
This is not a useful argument. The administration and its Congressional allies need to pivot to the state-by-state successes and hype those, even if it opens them up to more attacks from the Right.
Step Two: Apologize and stop the bleeding
It took too long for the president to apologize and he probably should have been more empathetic and less sympathetic in his remarks in the Rose Garden. Rather than promoting the program like a carnival barker during his remarks, he should have laid out a clear-cut path to fixing the problem -- with a visual aide listing out next steps. The White House should also use their website and Twitter feed to provide regular updates on progress.
Step Three: Fix the system and prevent it from happening again
The first and most important part of this final step is to remove the people who caused the problem. Secretary Sebelius needs to be fired. It's shocking she hasn't preemptively resigned. Anyone who was high profile enough to be touted in the press as being associated with the ACA rollout (such as White House aide Chris Jennings), should also be dismissed. When Apple introduced its new Maps app to utter failure, the head of the project was fired. This is how businesses works -- and how the government should as well, if someone messes up, they lose their job; they don't appear (and embarrass themselves) on The Daily Show.
The White House should release the names of every single corporate contractor and subcontractor that fouled up; think of it as Dog Shaming for corporations. There is no excuse for not testing the site's functionality before its launch. In fact, why weren't there multiple versions of the site being beta tested by focus groups and volunteers? No company blindly launches a new product in the way that it seems HHS did.
That the buck stops at the president is entirely true, and President Obama's remarks yesterday were a good step in taking on some of the blame for the rollouts mistakes, but there is only so much that can actually be placed on his shoulders. Bringing in a manager like Jeff Zients to single-mindedly fix the website is important, as is the fact the solution is being run from the White House rather than HHS.
Crisis breeds opportunity and right now President Obama has the opportunity to show government can be responsible and can act quickly to right a wrong -- like a successful corporation. The commander-in-chief can become the chief executive we hoped for.