State’s MASS SAVE energy rebate program a public relations disaster

It was a great idea, but its flawed execution can’t help being a black eye for the Patrick administration. The idea was to do for appliances what the cash-for-clunkers program did for cars. Massachusetts had over $6 million to give out in rebates for energy-inefficient washers, refrigerators, dishwashers and freezers. The rebates ranged from $50 to $250, depending on the appliance. Count me in! Too bad the state wasn’t up to the task.

My clothes washer needed replacing. I dutifully followed all the state’s instructions. I went to my appliance store, and decided which model suited our needs. Got the number. Went on Masssave.com to verify that the washing machine was eligible for a $175 rebate. That’s no small change.

The next step is where it became trouble. The process required people to go online to register, but not before 10 AM on April 22, Earth Day. I was then to take the rebate confirmation number to my appliance store, buy the washing machine, and by June have sent in the proof of purchase and delivery, along with verification that the old washing machine had been removed. A phone number provided was an alternative to the online registration.

Media reports had warned there’d be a rush this morning. I set my kitchen timer, and the countdown began. At 9:59:59 I went online. The message was Access is denied. You do not have permission to view this directory or page using the credentials that you supplied. I tried again and again. Same message.

I started dialing the number. Again and again and again. Busy, busy, busy. Every once in a while there would be no busy signal, and I’d think I was about to get through, but the line had just gone dead. I was simultaneously trying to work the web site, also to no avail.

Thirty-five minutes later, I did what any logical journalist would do; I emailed Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles, charged with overseeing the program to alert him to the melt-down. More dialing, more busy signals, more online rejection. Followed up with a telephone call to Ian Bowles’ office; he was out. Told his secretary their operation had crashed if, in fact, it was ever up. She indicated they were working on the problems.

One hour later, the web site message had changed (been upgraded?) to “service unavailable.” Now at least it wasn’t a question of my lack of permission or credentials. That barely made me feel better. An hour and a half, the message was “The resource you are looking for might have been removed, had its name changed, or is temporarily unavailable.”

Boston.com quoted Energy Department spokeswoman Lisa Capone. “Our phone lines are jammed from the call volume. The web site is down. We are advising people to keep trying — the problem will be resolved — and thanking them for their patience in the meantime.” Small consolation.

My appliance dealer, Jim Tiseo of Poirier, pictured here, had been in at 7 a.m. to get ready. He knew it was going to be a busy day. However, he also “knew it could be a disaster,” and it was. He was concerned that the appliance dealers would get blamed, and, he said, that’s exactly how things were turning out.

An hour and ¾ into the process, I learned from boston.com that the Department of Energy Website was advising people to try downloading the form at https://www.maswap1.com. Again, the discouraging messaging that “Service is unavailable.”

Just about two hours into the drill, using the new URL, I hit pay-dirt. The non-advertised website notes that, of the nearly $6 million allocated to the program, only $1.5 million remained. All I wanted was $175 of it. Within minutes of finally getting the form, the Boston Globe reported, the rebate pool was drained.

With rebates approved on a first-come, first-served basis, some people inevitably would come up empty-handed, but if operated as advertised it would at least have been fair. The messed up process clearly tilted the playing field against those who went on the site in a timely way, but couldn’t spend the hours it took to download the form and confirmation number. This wasn’t fair and doubtless gave many thwarted individuals yet another reason to be cynical about state government.

Please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.

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