Perils of Risk Communication III

I warned you about it.

“WASHINGTON — The moment a novel strain of swine flu emerged in Mexico last spring, President Obama instructed his top advisers that his administration would not be caught flat-footed in the event of a deadly pandemic. Now, despite months of planning and preparation, a vaccine shortage is threatening to undermine public confidence in government, creating a very public test of Mr. Obama’s competence.”

As you probably know, the Obama administration publicly announced several weeks ago that 120 million doses of the vaccine would be easily and widely available making the vaccine convenient.  The Administration then engaged in a deliberate and comprehensive persuasion campaign to get people in favor of getting the vaccines.  The problem arises because about 20 million doses are now available when the Administration confidently declared 120 million would be.  That’s an effect size difference that requires no statistician to compute.

The article further details the extensive White House planning for this vaccine campaign seeing it as an opportunity to demonstrate how Obama could run things better than that much derided, despised, and discredited former occupant.  Obama made the topic a regular part of his security briefings, convened panels of experts to advise him, made serious study of past epidemics and vaccines, and in general demonstrated an excellent grad school approach to the problem.

Yet through it all, and as I’ve noted, the Obama campaign managed to inflame and scare large segments of the population while at the same time over promising deliverables.  Add to the mix the confident, professional, and tone deaf risk communication skills of Secretary Sebelius and you’ve got a problem.  The Times notes,

“But the administration, and in particular Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, have come in for strong criticism from those who say they created a false sense of expectations with overly optimistic predictions about the availability of the vaccine.”

There are at least two major issues in this case.  First, consider the over optimistic control beliefs by Obama and his Administration.  Second, reconsider the poor risk communication performance by key sources, especially Sebelius.

Smart people believe they can study problems and develop smart solutions that will work.  That’s what they learn in grad school whether as lawyers, engineers, physicians, or scientists.  Obama seems particularly well trained in that regard.  Unfortunately, the functioning of 300 million citizens in America is not as well understood as they teach you in grad school.  Further, a detailed, comprehensive, and highly predictable description of epidemics and vaccines also eludes us.  Yet, if you’re trained in the grad school model, there is no limit to your knowledge and research.

Except when you hit the wall like Obama just did.

(I hope he’s coming to realize the same limits with Afghanistan planning.  There is no smart, correct solution.  You just bang at the problem as well as you can and try to survive the beating you’re going to get while doing it.  Perhaps he’ll learn he needs to rally support for the effort and not to promise surefire goals and aims statements.)

And, the second concern with less than stellar risk communication:  Obama is held to be Persuasion Central, another Great Communicator, and now this communication mishap.  Sebelius is a politician and a governor.  She is not a risk communicator.  Mr. Obama is a politician and a Senator now President.  He, too, is not a risk communicator.  This requires a special skill set and Obama needs to learn that soon.

Or else everyone will find this funny and accurate.

Obama Joker Vaccine

Remember the Rules!

More is the enemy of less.

Power corrupts persuasion.

All bad persuasion is sincere.

If you can’t succeed, don’t try.

It’s about the other guy, stupid.

All people always resist significant change.

Persuaders can either be famous or effective, but not both.