Bolten's Law and the Obamacare Kerfuffle

Oct 27, 2013

Much has been said about how tight-lipped the Obama administration has been about the enrollment numbers since October 1 for the private exchanges mandated by Obamacare. There is a lesson here about communicating, that applies just as powerfully to quantation (the act of presenting numbers) as it applies to all other types of communication.

In my book, Painting with Numbers, I articulated Bolten’s Law, which states: If you present a number, your audience will want to talk about it. It’s sort of a parallel to Murphy’s Law. I also articulated Corollary #1 to Bolten’s Law: If you don’t present a number that the audience was expecting, they will ask you why it’s not there. Corollaries #2 and #3 go on to observe that under some circumstances the audience will not only ask about that, but will form judgmental and harsh conclusions about just why those numbers were omitted.

This is the bind that the Obama administration now finds itself in. They are clearly withholding information about how many people have attempted to open accounts, how many people have successfully done so, how many people were seeking private insurance (rather than Medicaid), the demographic and medical characteristics of those signing up, and how the federal exchange website has performed compared to the state websites.

The administration may have valid reasons for holding back on this information, but it will all come out eventually. And some of that information will almost certainly get cast in a light that makes Obamacare look like an unsuccessful program, and make the people responsible for the communications look evasive or even dishonest. A significant contributor to that perception will be the simple fact that they withheld the information for as long as they could.

There is a lesson here for publicly traded companies and all others who present quantitative information to a profoundly interested audience.

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people talking about financial statements and other numbers in ways that we can all understand. I welcome your interest and your feedback.

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