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SCOT LEHIGH

Governor Deval Patrick’s troubles

A difficult period for the state offers lessons in governing

Dina Rudick/Globe Staff/file 2013

It’s hard to remember a time when so much seemed to be going wrong in Massachusetts government. Or, frankly, when a Massachusetts governor seemed to be doing such a convincing impersonation of Mr. Magoo.

But though this is a difficult period for the state, there are some important lessons to be learned from problems that have beset Governor Patrick and his team.

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Those problems, to state the obvious, are substantial. Once an example of effective state government, the Massachusetts Health Connector is now problem-plagued. With its overhauled website malfunctioning badly, staffers have been left manually entering information from as many as 50,000 paper applications into the computer system. The state’s unemployment benefits website is also fraught with problems, frustrating many who are seeking jobless benefits.

The Department of Children and Families has taken a tragic place in the headlines since the December news that it had lost track of a five-year-old. That boy, whom the agency had failed to visit for five months, is now presumed dead.

More recently, the process of establishing medical marijuana dispensaries has led to a murky mess, with provisional licenses granted to applicants who fed the state false information and dubious claims.

Now, I’m not one that thinks every single problem that has occurred on his watch is fairly laid at Patrick’s doorstep. To take an example from 2012, there’s no way the governor himself could have anticipated that a rogue chemist was at work in the state’s Hinton crime lab.

But other problems are things that a more competent manager might well have prevented — and that a governor with a greater sense of urgency would have addressed more promptly and effectively.

Consider DCF. Although the state prevailed last year in a lawsuit that Children’s Rights, a national child-advocacy organization, filed on behalf of foster children, the 2010 filings in that suit nevertheless should have raised red flags about DCF. Those papers are filled with information that should have led to greater scrutiny. One example: Only about half of the foster parents surveyed in 2009 said they saw their foster child’s caseworker on a monthly basis.

The state’s two troubled websites also belong in that category. In both cases, there was early evidence of big problems — evidence the Patrick administration missed, ignored, or downplayed.

Sadly, there’s little chance that, in his last year as governor, Patrick will suddenly blossom into a better administrator. Still, there are some instructive takeaways for the various candidates vying to succeed him.

First, an effective governor must take a proactive approach toward predictable problem areas. Social service agencies that deal with troubled families are high among those. In areas like those, a good public manager needs to get under the hood and understand what’s going on.

Second, complicated new undertakings like the connector website require continuous oversight. An able CEO must demand regular progress reports and insist on actual tests to see how such projects are progressing. On a related note, the next governor must find a way to identify which companies are actually able to deliver on complex IT projects. Many retail companies do sophisticated e-commerce effectively and efficiently. State government needs to learn from them.

Third, a smart manager must confront problems honestly, openly, and inquisitively. His or her operative assumption should be that a troubling story or development may presage a larger problem — and that that possibility needs to be investigated. Patrick’s instinct, by contrast, has been to downplay reports of problems and, sometimes, to imply that those asking tough questions are engaged in grandstanding or scapegoating.

Fourth, process matters. If the Department of Public Health had applied the kind of tough and thorough scrutiny the gaming commission has, the confidence-eroding mess with the marijuana dispensaries could have been avoided.

Fifth, an effective manager must value ability over loyalty. Patrick made a mistake halfway through his second term by telling top appointees that if they wouldn’t commit to stay to the end, they had to go. That led to the departure of some of the most able people in an administration that was never top-heavy with talent.

And if a governor himself isn’t a strong manager? Then he or she needs to hire top aides who are. A governor should have at least one person in his office with the standing to tell him candidly when his inclinations are wrong, when he has made a mistake, or when a problematic appointee has to go.

In sum, campaigning well is one thing, governing well quite another.

And that’s a lesson both candidates and voters need to keep in mind.

Scot Lehigh can be reached at lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @GlobeScotLehigh.
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