Thursday, May 1, 2014

HHS Spokesperson: "No One Likes to Watch the Daily Show Make Fun of HHS"

    In October 2013, as the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), a division of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), was launching Healthcare.gov, CMS also launched a quieter initiative. As part of Ignite, an internal HHS program designed to spur innovation, a team within CMS's press office designed a system to help CMS communicate more quickly and efficiently with the press. The team envisioned that such a system, if functioning well, could also improve CMS's portrayal in the media.  As project leader Emma Sandoe, CMS's Medicaid spokesperson, put it in her presentation of the team's report to other CMS employees, "no one likes to watch the Daily Show make fun of HHS and our job here in the press office is to make sure that doesn't happen as often as it sometimes does[.]"
    The CMS team called their project the Coordinated Press Response Strategy.  In her presentation, Sandoe noted the irony of the project's launch coinciding with that of Healthcare.gov: "We launched this tool in the month of October, which - you may have heard [laughter] we also launched a little website, Healthcare.gov..."
    Ms. Sandoe further said that her team hoped to "develop a coordinated press response strategy in order to get better media and diffuse more media bombs."  "Media bombs" referred back to the beginning of Sandoe's presentation when she likened the atmosphere in a government press office to an episode of the TV terrorism drama "24."  The "ticking time bombs" are reporters' deadlines that the press office is hoping to defuse, but whereas Jack Bauer only had one bomb at a time to worry about, a press office may have dozens.  Sandoe's audience seemed to appreciate the anaolgy.
    The system Sandoe and her team developed was intended to be a "memory vault" to remind press officers what statements they had already made and what cleared information had already been released.  The system was designed not only for official press statements, but a variety of off the record and background information, as well. According to Sandoe, the ease of access to information allowed the CMS press office to cut its average response time on press inquiries from 49 hours to 22.5 hours while the project was in operation.  Sandoe expressed the desire to expand the tool beyond CMS to the press offices of all departments of HHS.
    In addition to improving the response time for inquiries, Sandoe also hoped the project would improve relations with the press and perhaps result in more favorable coverage for her agency.  In Sandoe's words, "if a reporter likes you and the reporter likes working with you, they will write better stories about you; so we're working to improve the stories that are written about HHS."  She later added, "[T]he worst words that you can see in the newspaper as a press officer is 'CMS did not comment.'"
    The Project Summary for the Coordinated Press Response Strategy presented the results in terms of "Time (hours) spent between report inquiry and official response to the inquiry" and "Attitudes of the press officers (via survey)":
The team saw a 52% decrease in the response time for reporter inquiries and a generally positive view from staff of the design. In order to continue the testing and implementation, CMS would like to see increased utilization throughout the department achieved through greater exploration of this workflow model with communications specialists across HHS that are working directly with media.
    To seek clarification and further explanation of the details of the project, THE WEEKLY STANDARD contacted the CMS press office, the Media Relations Group, via email and inquired about what percentage of inquiries CMS responds to and what percentage go unanswered, does CMS prioritize which news outlets will be responded to first, and does CMS usually only respond to 'mainstream' news outlets, or also to less traditional outlets, such as bloggers.  About nine hours later, CMS responded, but with just a single line: "This was an internal project initiated by staff to test a way to improve our operating procedures and increase efficiency within the office."
    A follow up email was sent to CMS: "I assume from your reply that CMS is not prepared to share any further details about the project or whether the system is still being used within CMS’s press office?"
    Shortly thereafter, CMS replied again, this time with but a single word: "Correct."

Note: A version of this post first appeared at The Weekly Standard.

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