It's important to learn lessons from the things we do so that we can do better the next time around. There are many lessons the White House can take away from last Wednesday's announcement about benefits to gay Federal employees. Monday morning quarterbacking is far easier than governing, so this analysis is meant with the intention to help the White House get it right the next time, the time after that, and the time after that and...Get my drift?
Lesson #1: Understand your audience. Amid growing criticism from the LGBT community, quietly spreading the word of a pending 'major announcement' in order to quell unrest raises the bar. If you are not going to be able to meet expectations, it's a bad idea to suggest that you will, especially among a constituency sensitive to being let down. It's just setting you up for failure and a higher volume of criticism.
Lesson #2: Don't get blindsided by your own Administration. While it is understandable to be sensitive to the Bush Administration's over-politicization of the Justice Department, having an overreaction of giving no oversight is a mistake. Doing so sets you up for instances such as the DoJ brief on a lawsuit challenging the Defense of Marriage Act, where they compared marriage equality to incest, among other things.
That brief became the standard by which next steps were judged. It was a standard the White House could not possibly meet with Wednesday's announcement and will take some time to make reparations for. Instructing DoJ to run legal briefs by the White House Counsel's office, if for no other reason than to know what's in the pipe, would give the White House much-needed knowledge in order to act upon.
Lesson #3: Don't overstate. Honesty and frankness, while not always popular, will help avoid criticism. Selling something as more than it is invites criticism. Having properly characterized the action being taken from the Administration would have prevented certain criticism and also lessened the perception that the announcement was far from meeting expectations.
Lesson #4: Get the messaging right. This episode was wrought with confusing and complicating points. First, the issuance of a Presidential Memorandum instead of an Executive order began a distracting side conversation that immediately began to undermine the announcement.
On further investigation, I found that the Office of Personnel Management is actually changing Federal regulations and has drafted and published them to the Federal Register. That is an accurate portrayal of what happened and would have avoided many of the confusing perceptions in the discussion about it.
Lesson #5: Optics matter. They also need to match the rhetoric and the reality. Part of the anger surrounding this announcement is that the White House was trying to claim credit for more than they were doing. (See Lesson #3.)
Oval Office ceremonies are a big deal; they are often used to sign landmark legislation. While a positive step forward was certainly made with this announcement, it is a small step when compared against the large number of changes that need to be made to erase each instance of discrimination that currently exists in the Federal code of laws.
The event was staged straight out of the 90's and, with the changing of the characters, could have been President Clinton signing the executive order banning discrimination in the administration of security clearances. The standard practice to give 'official' approval of 'the gay community' is to place leaders of gay rights organizations and gay elected officials behind the president. For a president that built the largest grassroots movement in the history of our nation, such a visual is disrespectful at best.
Since the action was most important to Federal employees, a more appropriate venue would have been at OPM addressing those employees about the changes being made. It would have shown that the White House understood those that were affected by the announcement and avoided criticism that it was suggesting the scope was broader than it was.
Lesson #6: Staff matters and hearing what they have to say is critical. There is a perception that the Obama Administration lacks sensitivity to the LGBT community. This can be easily addressed by empowering staff to address this within the White House and to a diversity of people on the outside. This may, and likely does, require that staff abandon traditional thinking about the gay community.
Major changes to both the structure and mindset of the LGBT community have occurred in the past two years. Having staff that not only understand that, but also embody that change will help to ensure that the White House takes them into consideration on future decisions affecting the gay community. Without new perspective, mistakes may continue and that is something the Administration can't afford to do.