The Book of Baker

A popular governor and his former top aide lay out their nut-and-bolts governing manifesto

The first of two takes on the new book by the state’s governor and his former chief of staff.  Here is the second, a look at the Baker playbook from Bob Massie, a former Democratic nominee for lieutenant governor and candidate for governor.

IT IS QUITE rare for a governor to write a book while in office. The most recent had been by a popular blue-state Republican governor in 2020. Gov. Larry Hogan’s Still Standing is enjoyable, but is self-serving, as a politician’s book usually is, and is intended to justify a presidential run. Gov. Charlie Baker and his former chief of staff, Steve Kadish, have done the opposite. Far from penning an offering for the political chattering class, they have produced a decidedly unsexy, mechanics-of-governing manual more suited to put in the Christmas stocking of your town administrator. 

Results: Getting Beyond Politics to Get Important Work Done is a powerful testament to what state government is supposed to do, and how that is best done. It describes a made-in-Massachusetts meth

odology for the fulfillment of justice for the people that depend on government. It competes with the advocacy of the political vanguard in Massachusetts, which wants the government to do more. Yet these two approaches both seek to assist the same kinds of people, and that is an important reason why there has been collaboration on Beacon Hill, despite differences.

Results is primarily a handbook for people in government who want to solve difficult problems, written by two people who have done so. Alongside a four-part management framework they outline, there are good ideas here for public servants who want to govern, in a time when seemingly everyone would rather do politics.

Also, in making the case for the handbook, and in the telling of the stories of the case studies they use to illustrate their governing approach, Baker and Kadish reveal some of why this unusual administration has been so successful and popular. The book is spiritually grounded in a creed I would sum up this way: government can do good; it must do good; but it has to be made to do good, by good managers.

The preface, introduction, and epilogue contain moving words about why this mission is noble and needed. These three sections take up a generous 37 pages of the book. As the governor’s voice is heard in these sections most clearly, they are valuable essays on their own merits.

The omnipresent pro-government philosophy is astounding for a Republican governor. Baker says directly in the introduction, “The concept of making government work, especially for those who depend upon these services with few other options, forms the rudder of my governing philosophy.”

I have been in Republican politics all the way back to Ronald Reagan. I have never heard a party member speak about government in this way. Not only did Reagan famously say, “Government is the problem,” even Baker’s losing 2010 gubernatorial campaign used the slogan, “Had enough?” He certainly had a conversion experience along the way to the governor’s office four years later. But the reality of his unique brand of Republicanism means that the potential of bipartisan collaboration, advertised in this book, is less useful in our current politics.

The structure of the book allows the reader to skip around and sample various sections. Most people would be best served by first reading the preface and introduction, and then touring the case studies in the later chapters.

The policy areas addressed, which are spread across all chapters, include: COVID-19, the MBTA, rural broadband, the opioid epidemic, the Department of Children and Families, Bridgewater State Hospital, the Registry of Motor Vehicles, and health care.

All are interesting, but the MBTA and rural broadband stood out as a pair of potent policy parables.

The effort to bring broadband Internet to dozens of rural towns in Massachusetts is in the second chapter. A proud gubernatorial signing ceremony in Goshen back in 2008 created the Massachusetts Broadband Institute, which was supposed to bring universal broadband to Massachusetts. It did not. Boston got used to an ongoing policy failure in western Massachusetts that was hiding behind local problems that didn’t have obvious resolutions. The consequences for many people’s lives were significant, and the failure had soured people on government itself.  Baker tells us he heard about it often on the campaign trail, and knew his administration had to solve the problems.

That situation validates Baker and Kadish’s stated view that the job of the governor is more managerial than legislative. For the Results framework, it is used to show the “follow the facts” principle, where dedicated, patient people have to attend scores of meetings to nail down the facts and come up with executable plans. The human impact of the eventual success of the project is revealed in a heartwarming story. A select board member living in a tiny hamlet is quoted saying that after many barren years, installing broadband was almost certainly the reason why children were once again being born there.

One last thought about rural broadband: When Baker took office, some said it was his charge to “fulfill the promises of the Patrick administration.” I found that too limiting. Yet we see that happening again and again in this book, and this is an explanation for why so many Democrats who voted for Patrick in 2010, and against Baker, joined his base of support in his 2018 landslide re-election.

The transformation of the MBTA takes up all of chapter six, and is also previewed in chapter four as a “Push for Results” example in the framework section. 

How Baker and his team took control of MBTA and wrestled with it is a major part of their work and his legacy as governor. The public discussion of what was wrong with the MBTA before 2015 was part of the problem, not a path to solutions. The administration saw the MBTA as an organization with serious problems that needed reform, and not just billions of dollars of  infrastructure debt that the Legislature needed to pay for. This was a major policy breakthrough, and we learn in the book how they came to that conclusion. 

Steve Kadish, often the behind-the-scenes guy in charge of the thorniest issues faces the early years of the Baker administration. (Photo by Frank Curran)

Following the first of the Results principles, “people are policy,” Baker and Kadish brought in new leaders, and even a new MBTA position, chief administrative officer, filled by the dynamic, relentless Brian Shortsleeve. He had no transportation experience, but that wasn’t the need that their analysis revealed.

We learn how the new leadership team got the MBTA to operate far better and spend money more wisely. The MBTA then didn’t even have the ability to spend the capital budget they already had to fix things, something the public would have found outrageous in the winter of 2015. The capacity to conduct repairs and spend capital dollars was continuously improved to record levels.

The lessons around transforming the MBTA, which were also used to save the Green Line Extension, are important for other huge policy problems in our state; none more relevant than the undisciplined Boston Public Schools system, which has also seen billions flow through it without improving service, all while its infrastructure aged and crumbled. The next superintendent there should read this book.

There are a few other important ideas available in Results.

An interesting concept that operates inside the Baker administration, but is only directly mentioned in the preface of the book, is that, “moderation is a way of coping with a complex world.” This was visible in COVID-19 policy, where a humility about what would actually work sometimes prevented cumbersome forays into complex policy prescriptions, letting local governments do customizations. It is notable that Mayor Wu of Boston does not agree with this idea, as we saw in her attempts to enforce unpopular, difficult COVID-19 mitigations weeks after the Omicron wave hit Massachusetts during December of 2021, prescriptions that Baker resisted at the state level during that period.

Another idea at work throughout the book, but not called out directly, is how resisting partisanship and avoiding political drama makes it easier to recruit talent and foster multi-organization collaborations. The delightful anecdote in chapter one about the across-the-aisle hiring of Stephanie Pollack as secretary of transportation is only possible because Baker and Kadish (who, not incidentally, form an across-the-aisle partnership themselves) rallied a regiment of experts with diverse political views around a set of non-partisan ethics. A technocratic brand makes accomplishments possible that are unavailable to the administrations of a Gov. Gavin Newsom in California or a Gov. Ronald DeSantis in Florida.

One last good idea for government managers is that they should “resist averages.” Baker and Kadish tell us that huge problems hide underneath low expectations and reports that show the average person using a government service is having an acceptable experience. One of their three examples was that off-peak MBTA service, combined into total service metrics, had been hiding how poor on-peak service was for many people. 

Critics of the administration will find the book does nothing to address their grievances: there are no aspirations for government outside of what it is already doing, and there is no persistent effort to convince the Legislature of the need to change approach on huge chronic problems. They will also notice that at times, unflattering details are left out, such as the background of the COVID-19 deaths at The Soldiers’ Home in Holyoke. This is not an uninterrupted pattern, as failures do make limited appearances in the book.

Will this approach to government be Baker’s legacy? For political people, no. It will be more fun to recount his enduring, Santa Claus-level of popularity, the long lurid battles with the masochistic MassGOP, his bipartisan cabinet, and dramatic moments in the fight against COVID-19. But for those who work in government, his legacy will be what he and Kadish have written about in Results.

I saw proof of this at Baker’s last State of the Commonwealth address in January. Hundreds of public servants and elected officials from all over the state, standing and cheering for his governing successes and calls for building trust and collaborations to make things better for the people of Massachusetts.

I couldn’t help but notice our attorney general at the address, not far in front of me, and off to one side. As I saw Maura Healey applauding along with everyone else for the good that government can do, I thought, “The gubernatorial candidate campaigning on ‘keeping what’s working’ would probably keep a lot of this going.”

Meet the Author

Ed Lyons

Political writer and Republican activist
As the blueprint to do that is now available, my guess is that she reads it — privately. Though I have the feeling Baker and Kadish would be happy to autograph a copy for her.

Ed Lyons is a longtime Massachusetts Republican activist.