It’s complicated. Governance, that is. If it were easy, we wouldn’t hear so much advice for the new governor. Or have digested so many end-of-the-Patrick-administration retrospectives that bravely try to sum up eight years of work with highlights and lowlights that cannot possibly cover the countless hours of negotiation, discovery, disappointment, and hanging-by-the-fingernails hope that went into them.
So when a new administration begins with a fairly simple premise, in this case that good management will fix what’s wrong with the commonwealth, the instinct is rightly to wonder whether it’s that simple. In an interview with The Boston Globe on the eve of his inaugural, Charlie Baker reasserted his no tax increase pledge, saying, “We can’t just push the revenue button every time it gets a little complicated.”
Maybe Baker is right. Perhaps skilled management can cut the fiscal fat with surgical precision, increase efficiencies, and improve outcomes enough to fix our social and fiscal ills. But the campaign is over, and Charlie Baker is the governor now. Looking at the Department of Transportation and the Department of Children and Families, two departments that cry out for better outcomes, we ask the question: Can a gifted manager really fix what’s wrong with Massachusetts?
One of Charlie Baker’s first acts as governor was to release $100 Million in Chapter 90 funds for roads and bridges. That was smart. Over half of Massachusetts’ bridges are “structurally deficient” or “functionally obsolete”, according to the Federal Highway Administration.
Potholes and bad roads cost drivers $2.3 billion a year in car repairs. Economic growth depends upon transportation, and the legislature passed a gas tax to raise funds to improve transportation in the last session, ironically right before gas prices dropped so low we realized we’d forgotten what cheap gas was like. But the ballot initiative to repeal indexing of the gas tax to the rate of inflation passed, and $1 billion in revenue over the next 10 years was lost.
The Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation (MTA), which generally opposes tax increases, supported the gas tax indexing and for good reason. Then MTA President Michael Widmer said, in an interview last fall for The Republican, “They’re going to find out quite quickly they don’t have enough money to fund basic maintenance of roads and bridges, never mind expansion.”
Raj Sisodia, co-founder of Conscious Capitalism and professor of Global Business at Babson College, says there is unquestionable value in good management.
“Once it is decided where we are going and where to get there, managers make sure that everything is working smoothly," Sisodia said. "The trains run on time, the bills are paid. There is a role for that."
No agency has seemed more in need of good management than the Department of Children and Families (DCF). After Jeremiah Oliver was reported missing and later found dead, DCF head Olga Roche’s late-to-the-game resignation was reluctantly accepted by then-governor Patrick and an investigation ensued. Jeremiah Oliver’s family was homeless, and his case had been transferred from one DCF regional office to another. Files were lost and faxes weren’t received. Linda Spears led the investigation into the management of the agency last spring and was named by Charlie Baker to be the new Commissioner of DCF. The investigation found serious deficits, including insufficient funds and under-staffing.
State Sen. Mike Barrett, Chair of the Joint Committee on Children, Families and Persons with Disabilities, says the recommended reforms will make a difference once they’re fully implemented, but that they call for more hours from more state employees.
“The reforms call for integration of child abuse services with substance abuse, domestic violence, and mental health," Barrett said. "Without needed money, the best managers will still be trapped in their silos, and kids and parents will remain unserved."
Sisodia says that while great management is essential, it may not be sufficient by itself to solve organizational shortcomings.
“Managers focus on efficiencies and functionality within the system. We should manage budgets and non-living things," he said. "I don’t know anybody who likes to be managed, but people are hungry for leadership. They want to know that who they are matters to the organization and that they have a voice."
It may be that, like Barack Obama, who overestimated his powers of persuasion to pass legislation while he was running for office, Charlie Baker may have overestimated the powers of his managerial skills. He may be the best manager we’ve ever elected governor, but in the issues he’s already acknowledged he’s going to face, he may find that, after all, it’s complicated.