Peter Principle at work in Bay State bureaucracy
Gov. Deval Patrick has a serious problem on his hands. Some state agencies are in full grip of the Peter Principle.
Educator Laurence Peter is forever linked to his observation about management that “in a hierarchically structured administration, people tend to be promoted up to their level of incompetence.”
Patrick’s final months in office have been marred by a series of seemingly unrelated high-profile scandals: Former state chemist Annie Dookhan’s tampering with thousands of drug samples at the Hinton State Laboratory Institute in Jamaica Plain; the disappearance of young Jeremiah Oliver of Fitchburg after a Department of Children and Families social worker and supervisors missed signs that the family warranted more aggressive interventions; and the death of Joshua Messier at the hands of three Bridgewater State Hospital prison guards in a case that was initially ruled a homicide.
Yet the one thread that weaves all of these cases together are the particularly sinister examples of employee incompetence followed by a cascade of middle management failures.
Inspector General Glenn Cunha announced Tuesday that his investigation into the Hinton lab scandal found that “management failures of DPH lab directors contributed to Dookhan’s ability to commit her acts of malfeasance. The directors were ill-suited to oversee a forensic drug lab, provided almost no supervision, were habitually unresponsive to chemists’ complaints and suspicions, and severely downplayed Dookhan’s major breach in chain-of-custody protocol upon discovering it.”
The heads of each affected agency responded differently. John Auerbach, the former Department of Public Health commissioner, resigned (The inspector general’s report faulted Auerbach for certain oversights.) Olga Roche, the head of the Department of Children and Families took the rare step of firing three social workers and reassigning a fourth and remains at her post as the Child Welfare League of America conducts its investigation.
The Bridgewater State Hospital case presents the most puzzling response. The guards involved are on paid administrative leave. Public Safety Secretary Andrea Cabral has called for the resignation of Assistant Deputy Commissioner Karen Hetherson, while Corrections Commissioner Luis Spencer received a reprimand.
The governor accepted responsibility in the drug lab case and has called in independent investigators to deal with the Oliver tragedy. However, ongoing criticism over the handling of the Messier case may force Patrick to take stronger steps.
But the mea culpas from the governor and the media jihad against agency chiefs like Roche do little to address the more fundamental problem: When some employees engage in questionable behavior or life-threatening conduct, their frontline managers are ill-equipped to deal with the resulting crisis.
Middle management deficiencies in state government promise to outlive Gov. Deval Patrick and his agency chiefs. Does the Legislature or the next governor need to raise the bar and reassess how mid-level decision-makers arrive at positions of power and develop new standards and training that can keep the Peter Principle at bay?
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