IT’S THE CULTURE of state government versus the Baker administration and the winner, by a knockout in the fifth round, is state government culture.
Think of the MBTA and the Registry of Motor Vehicles with their deeply rooted cultures of self-protection and risk avoidance.
Gov. Charlie Baker has staked a good measure of his credibility on fixing those two agencies which, unlike most state agencies, interact with a broad swath of the population in visible and critical ways.
Five years into his governorship, it is abundantly clear that the administration has seriously underestimated the task of implementing needed changes without simultaneously changing the culture of these agencies. Culture is hard to define but anyone who has worked in an organization of any size knows that culture drives the behavior of that organization and that changing that culture requires an enormous effort. At both the T and the Registry, Baker has made laudable efforts to fix longstanding problems, but those efforts, in largely ignoring the underlying cultures of those organizations, have compromised a broader public vision.
It’s not just that the shortcomings of these agencies are on public display (at the T on an almost daily basis), but in both cases recent independent reports have highlighted how the administration’s focus on certain priorities at each agency has had serious unintended consequences including, most alarmingly, for public safety.
The MBTA has experienced a year’s worth of setbacks in the past two weeks. In particular, a scathing report by an outside panel found that a goal of public safety had been sacrificed to budget tightening and a priority on accelerating capital projects.
“The cultural environment at the MBTA is narrowly focused on values, attitudes and behavior which are centered around the delivery of the capital plan” with a “significant focus on fiscal control of operating expenses,” the report said. The result has been “detrimental to operations” and to the delivery of quality service, with “deficiencies in policies, application of safety standards or industry best practices, and accountability” in “almost every area we examined,’” the experts concluded.
Looking inside the organization, the panel found that “a current culture of blame and retaliation impede the T’s ability to achieve a greater level of risk management and safety assurance. Perceived or real, employees in general do not trust their leadership and therefore do not share with leadership what is happening in the field for fear of heavy-handed discipline. The workforce does not feel supported by management and are clearly frustrated with management’s lack of responsiveness to their needs.”
On the other side of the ledger, the panel concluded that its interviews and field work “revealed that leadership feels somewhat defeated, helpless and in some cases hopeless.”
Furthermore, “the lack of upward and downward communication within the agency is also at the core of many of the T’s safety issues. Leadership has not identified or attempted to open channels of communication with the workforce.”
It does not take a Ph.D. in organizational dynamics to conclude that such a culture is a recipe for poor performance. Yes, the MBTA is obviously an old system that desperately needs modernizing, but there is no way the system can meet its performance objectives without a dramatic change in its culture.
One sees striking parallels in the independent report prepared two months ago by the accounting firm Grant Thornton in response to the tragedy when a Massachusetts driver, whose license should have been revoked by the Registry of Motor Vehicles, killed seven motorcyclists in New Hampshire. Grant Thornton found that Registry officials were so focused on improving customer service and reducing waiting lines at local offices that they neglected the work required to keep unsafe drivers off the road.
The report emphasized that risk management was not part of the Registry culture and that the long list of specific failures was deeply rooted in the culture of the organization.
At both the T and the Registry there are many hard working and committed individuals at all levels of the organizations. But the cultures, which discourage individual responsibility and the building of trust, are serious impediments to achieving improved performance.
It is important to emphasize, and both reports make this point, that the cultures at each agency have existed for decades. The problem, especially at the T, is that the shortcomings have now reached a breaking point.
The Baker administration deserves credit for making fixing the T a priority. The Fiscal and Management Control Board has taken a wide variety of steps to move the T forward, and General Manager Steve Poftak is a breath of fresh air.
However, the pace of change is simply inadequate to the challenge. The entire transportation system is crumbling and bold action is required.
“Incrementalism” seems to be the administration’s watchword, which may be fine in some instances but falls way short in the face of a transportation crisis with crippling traffic congestion, no plan to raise badly needed transportation revenues, and the absence of the organizational and management horsepower to turn around the MBTA.
Vetoing a modest congestion pricing proposal, counting on an uncertain regional climate initiative to produce additional transportation revenues in 2022 or later, and constantly repeating promises of progress at the T — these hardly constitute the bold action required to meet our transportation challenges.
Governor Baker is too talented to let this opportunity pass. It’s time for him to get off the mat and lead the fight.
Michael Widmer is an analyst of Massachusetts state government who lives in Belmont.