Kettering President Attends White House Meeting on Flu Pandemic

David Mathews, president of the Kettering Foundation and chairman of the National Issues Forums Institute, attended a meeting at the White House on June 30 to advise President Barack Obama and members of his cabinet on dealing with the H1N1 virus, or swine flu. Mathews was secretary for health, education, and welfare in 1976 when an outbreak of swine flu seemed likely. Fortunately, it did not occur. He was joined at the June White House meeting by others who served with him, including William Howard Taft IV, who was general counsel at the time and has more recently assisted Kettering in its work with China. Among those with President Obama were Secretary of Health and Human Services Kathleen Sebelius and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, as well as officials from Homeland Security and several health agencies. In the meeting, Mathews told President Obama that the administration should be prepared for a major test of its communications system because of heightened concerns about risks from the flu and uncertainty over crucial decisions, such as if and when to close schools. It was advisable, Mathews said, not only to speak, but also to listen to the public as citizens struggle with the decisions that will have to be made, both nationally and locally. At the meeting, Mathews discussed public deliberation as a way to provide a window into public thinking because it requires people to face up to the difficult decisions that will be necessary to make in order to keep the economic and educational systems functioning while protecting people’s health from a very contagious disease. Communicating with the public is most effective when officials know how the citizenry goes about making up its mind when confronting the trade-offs that have to be made. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, with assistance from the University of Georgia’s National Issues Forums (NIF) group, has used deliberations to develop policy on issues such as priorities for vaccines in a pandemic. Mathews suggested that more of these deliberative forums would be useful to get beyond the advice of interest groups and understand how average citizens are thinking about such questions. At the end of the meeting, Mathews gave Secretary Sebelius a copy of the most recent NIF issue book on health care and the report of outcomes from deliberative forums on the subject, Public Thinking about Coping with the Cost of Health Care. That report shows that even after participants in these forums were made aware of the difficult trade-offs that will have to be made to provide care for everyone and also stem rising costs, they still struggled to work through the tensions involved in doing both.