Mad Hot Sexy Issue of 2014: Public Administration

Someone in the Patrick administration opened a window to let spring air in and a $100 million dollar bill floated out. It hasn’t been seen since. Oh well.

Okay that isn’t fair, but as the Boston Globe reported the state’s health care connector web site is being entirely scrapped and “The strategy announced Monday will still cost an estimated $100 million.” In a Boston Herald op-ed Charlie Baker wrote that because of the bungled connector web site “hundreds of thousands of our people have been put in health care coverage limbo, and tens of millions of dollars were wasted.”

Let’s see: health care connector, Department of Children and Families, the Probation Department trial, medical marijuana dispensaries, Annie Dookhan, the New England Compounding Center. Auditor Suzanne Bump’s team found shortcomings in the Department of Transitional Assistance’s management practices. Our pension system named the worst in the nation (conflict of interest warning: as a state employee I am dependent on the pension system). Yes the state GOP may be in disarray but then, it seems as if large sectors of our government are too.

So I nominate dull, boring, wonky, coma-inducing public administration for mad hot sexy issue of the year.

Sure it’s lots more fun to talk about taxes, inequality, universal pre-K and the environment etc. but someone has to manage this $36 billion behemoth.

This could present a big problem for whatever Democrat emerges in the September primary because Deval Patrick is beloved in activist circles and very popular with the Democratic electorate. So the nominee, especially heading into the September primary, may feel the need to defend the administration’s shaky record of administration.

Not all of these calamities can be laid at the administration’s door. The Probation Department issue (I’ll write another day on the topic of whether that is even a crime) is a legislative problem. The compounding center case is a classic matter of a regulatory body being captured by the industry it is supposed to regulate, resulting in lax oversight. No governor wakes up in the morning wondering if some crime lab chemist is making herself a prosecutorial superhero (though the Dookhan case, like the DCF matter, involved supervisors who got fired for failing to do their jobs; that is bad management).

The availability bias is at work here. Four years ago the governor was presiding over an economy that was doing better than most other states in bad times, the state was ranked in at least one survey as a great place to do business, and Governor Patrick was regarded as delivering solid management. But now the news has mostly been bad so we think about what is in front of us and not all the things that are working so well that we don’t notice them each day.

Plus we really really like the governor. But we don’t feel that warmly toward the next nominee, whoever that may be.

This provides an opening for Charlie Baker who was known, remember, as the smartest man in state government. He turned Harvard Pilgrim around from basket case headed to bankruptcy into a model company. If there is a God in heaven, the saying goes, Charlie Baker will be governor.

Except Baker has a managerial black eye of his own to defend, his role in Big Dig funding when he was Secretary of Administration and Finance. In 2010 the Globe’s Michael Rezendes and Noah Bierman reported that Baker had a large role in the financing plan for the Big Dig which relied on unrealistic assumptions and ignored cost over runs, all to the detriment of the taxpayers. Count on the Democrats to remind voters of the Baker’s Big Dig history.

Some folks might disagree that public administration is mad hot sexy. But in 2014 we need a vigorous debate on who is best qualified to manage state government.

About Maurice T. Cunningham

Maurice T. Cunningham is Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. He teaches courses in American government including Massachusetts Politics, The American Presidency, Catholics in Political Life, The Political Thought of Abraham Lincoln, American Political Thought, and Public Policy. His book Maximization, Whatever the Cost: Race, Redistricting and the Department of Justice examines the role of the DOJ in requiring states to maximize minority voting districts in the Nineties. He has published articles dealing with the role of the Catholic Church in Massachusetts politics and on party politics in the state. His research interests focus upon the changing political culture of Massachusetts.
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