6 Lessons from the HealthCare.gov Debacle

There is some irony in the fact that an administration recognized for having run the most digitally savvy political campaigns in history, should now be shipwrecked on the rocks of technical difficulties. One can certainly empathize with the president’s predicament regarding the failures of the new HealthCare.gov website, and there are a number of lessons to be learned here:

1. Better to Launch Late Than Launch Badly

Choosing between these two options may feel like a “name your poison” proposition, but business leaders, product managers and marketing professionals occasionally find themselves in precisely this kind of dilemma. As difficult a choice as these situations present, they can be character-defining moments when an organization and its executives are willing to take responsibility for a bad situation. Imagine how much less flak Mr. Obama would have taken if he’d just said, “We’ve done our due diligence, and the site is simply not ready to launch. We’re going to need another six weeks to deliver the quality of product that the American people deserve.” That would have subjected his administration to some short-lived criticism, but not accusations of malfeasance.

Announcing a delay can even have a positive effect if handled correctly. Automaker Infiniti recently announced the postponement of a wireless battery recharging system, scheduled for 2014. The company noted that new advances in technology meant delaying until 2016 would enable them to offer luxury car buyers a superior, highly differentiated product.

2. Placing a Premium on Critical Feedback

Too often, organizational leaders place such a premium on loyalty that the people who work for them are inclined to tell them what they want to hear rather than the truth. It wouldn’t be surprising to learn that this dynamic was at work with the premature launch of HealthCare.gov. In fact, details have emerged that numerous parties knew the website was not ready to launch, but were either unwilling to say anything or were ignored. Great leaders seek out unvarnished truth, because only when dealing with unpleasant facts can they help guide their organizations out of danger.

3. Public and Media Relations Thrive on Transparency

One of the cardinal rules of PR is to be straightforward about the facts. It’s the foundation of building trust with the media and the public. Even embarrassing details are better revealed than obscured. It is always the cover-up that damns and damages political, business and religious leaders. Americans are a forgiving bunch, especially when they feel that people are shooting straight with them. The Obama administration’s seeming inability to be forthcoming with the numbers of visits, inquiries, enrollments and purchases has engendered public distrust. It has even turned otherwise sympathetic news outlets like the Huffington Post, MSNBC The New York Times and even The Daily Show into harsh critics.

4. Respect Your Audience

The selective statistics that HHS and the White House have provided to the media are disingenuous at best and intentionally misleading at worst. It’s insulting to the intelligence of their audience. In today’s digital ecosystem where every move on the Internet is tracked, analyzed and sorted in real-time, precision and integrity of data should be givens. For example, while HHS boasted that 15 million visits demonstrated the popularity of HealthCare.gov, Pew Research found that 70% of those visitors already have insurance and are just curious “tourists,” not serious shoppers.

5. Business Leaders Are More Beholden to Their Technical Experts Than They’d Like to Be

It would be unfair to blame Mr. Obama per se for the technological failures of the website. Every CEO has felt this same kind of helplessness at one time or another. The IT director walks in and says, “We need to spend another $500,000 on network upgrades.” The CEO really has no way to evaluate the merits of the request. Is it really mission-critical, or is the IT department just bored with their old equipment? Technical experts wield an increasingly large share of influence in most organizations. And since most CEOs don’t have the time to learn how to write code, they have to trust their technical people, while still possessing the insight and judgment on how to integrate their advice.

6. Failure in the Details Threatens the Larger Vision

The biggest setback for the Obama administration is the movement of the conversation from the merits of healthcare reform to that of a dysfunctional website. The website has become a synecdoche for the entire healthcare issue, and as a result, tarnished the larger vision with a feeling of incompetence. This is perhaps the biggest issue of all in the HealthCare.gov failure.

The lessons: Quality before deadlines. Respect your audience’s intelligence. Truth over spin. Seek out bad news, rather than demanding loyalty. Don’t let failure in the details undermine the vision.

David Heitman ([email protected]) is president and creative director of The Creative Alliance, a Lafayette, Colorado-based branding and PR firm.