Kathleen Sebelius and the late apology

October 30, 2013

(AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

As apologies go, Kathleen Sebeliusmea culpa over the HealthCare.gov problems wasn't bad.

She didn't mince words in her testimony Wednesday when describing the experience of using the troubled Web site, calling it "miserably frustrating" rather than hiding behind euphemisms. She spoke directly to the people most affected by the site's flaws, the uninsured, saying "you deserve better. I apologize. I'm accountable to you for fixing these problems." And in response to a question about a deputy, she said “hold me accountable for the debacle. I’m responsible.”

Yes, she used the word "debacle".

None of that may ultimately matter, however. The site's problems, of course, aren't going anywhere with an apology. They are too deep, too complex and too political. The fate of Sebelius' job has become a spectator sport in Washington, and the president could ultimately reach the point where he decides to hold her accountable.

But what if Sebelius had delivered such an apology earlier? Thirty days after the site's launch, reports are saying it is the first time she has publicly apologized. Until now, Sebelius has pointed to glitches and high volume, made awkward late night appearances, admitted to being dissatisfied without apologizing, and described HealthCare.gov as "certainly not perfect" (which is a far cry from "miserably frustrating").

This is a common pattern for public officials, CEOs and other leaders. They respond to criticism initially with explanations. They test out empathetic remarks that express frustration but don't match the public outrage. They hold back on apologizing until there's absolutely no other option that sounds in touch. The problem is, though, by that point the apology has lost its punch.

Making such an emphatic public apology earlier wouldn't have fixed the site, of course. Sebelius would still be in the hot seat as leader of the agency charged with the health care law's rollout. And there would still be snarky lawmakers making grandstanding comments during her testimony about how she's not in Oz anymore.

But Sebelius would at least be in a better, more authentic position to move the conversation forward. It's crisis communications 101: Get the apology out of the way so the discussion can shift from what went wrong to what's being done to fix it. It's the best way to at least try to reset the dialogue on your own terms.

Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.

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Jena McGregor writes a daily column analyzing leadership in the news for the Washington Post’s On Leadership section.
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Jena McGregor · October 30, 2013