When Herb Denenberg was Pennsylvania’s Insurance Commissioner during the year 1971-1974, the insurance companies dubbed him “Horrible Herb.” There is even a story that some insurance executives, while out on the golf course, would roar “DENENBERG” instead of an expletive whenever they muffed a swing. Well, the former University of Pennsylvania insurance scholar now turned television consumer editor came to Washington recently to speak at our Public Citizen Forum on how former public interest advocates were doing in the Carter Administration. In his customary satiric fashion, he delivered to the gathering “An Action Guide for Consumer Advocates Who Become Government Officials.”
The guide deserves a wider audience — like anyone who works
in government or who wants to see government work. (Denenberg is willing to send you a copy on receipt
of a stamped, self-addressed envelope sent to him at Station WCAUTV, Phila., Pa. 19131.)
DRAWING FROM his own pioneering experience as a state government official, he said that there was too much talk among bureaucrats about how complicated problems are. That excuse, he observed, means that they either “don’t understand the problem or that they can’t explain it to me. So why not try to solve the simple problems first?”
Denenberg drew knowing laughter when he asserted that the real challenge was not how to .get something done with a competent staff, but was how to accomplish things with an incompetent staff. In his regulatory position, he worked as if he were going to be fired tomorrow. That, he declared, gave him a sense of urgency and priority.
Indeed, Denenberg’s tenure as insurance commissioner was innovative and highly productive for consumer justice. Many of his ideas have been carried into other state regulatory agencies around the country. So he knows what he is talking about.
Here are some of his tips to bureaucrats:
1. “Unleash a salvo of criticism (of the industry) immediately. A fast start is necessary to build public support to head off the inevitable calls for resignation. Only if the public understands what you are trying to accomplish and what the ties are will you be able to survive.” He noted that for a century, the insurance industry thought that the state insurance regulator’s sole function was to “whip through their requests for illegal and exorbitant rate increases.”
2. “Tell the truth once in a while. As H. L. Mencken has said, injustice is relatively easy to bear. What stings is justice. You should describe what’s going on in precise and nontechnical terms that will have the most impact.”
3. “Do things in a hurry that ought to be done in a hurry.” Once Denenberg cancelled on the spot at a public hearing the contract between Blue Cross and the hospitals because of the widespread waste allowed. The renegotiated contract saved the public millions of dollars and advanced the quality of medical care.
4. “Communicate effectively with the public. That’s necessary, not only to survive and establish a supportive constituency, but it is also an efficient way of bringing about change.” To illustrate this point, Denenberg noted the “Shopper’s Guide Services” that he issued on life insurance, auto, homeowners and health insurance, hospitals, dentistry, and surgery. He used to rank companies by name according to the size of the premiums charged.
5. “Don’t work quietly within the system. Translated, that means ‘don’t get conned and co-opted into doing nothing and doing it slowly.’
“THERE IS traditionally too much working within the system in the sense of back-room manipulation rather than public dialogue. It is the public, not the wheeler-dealers in smoke-filled back rooms, that are supposed to determine public policy. As Insurance Commissioner of Pennsylvania, I was always told by industry lobbyists that I could accomplish more by quietly working behind the scenes rather than by taking my case to the public. Undoubtedly, I could have accomplished more behind the scenes, but not for the consumers.”
The wisdom of Denenberg’s remarks is salted with humor and his actual experience. But he made one point with which I disagree: “If you follow my guide,” he concluded, “your time as a government official will be eventful but you will be unappointable to any other post.” The more present public servants behave the way Denenberg suggests, the more appointable people conscience and dedication will be throughout government.