The Codcast: Why did things go wrong at the Registry?

Most of the focus so far in the scandal at the Registry of Motor Vehicles has been on finding out what went wrong. Now attention is starting to shift to why.

On the Codcast, Sen. Eric Lesser of Longmeadow and Paul Levy, one of the state’s most  experienced managers, discussed why an agency would ignore all the warning signs and allow notices about Massachusetts driver violations in other states to pile up unattended. The situation only came to light when a Massachusetts driver who should have had his license suspended because of a drunken driving arrest in Connecticut plowed into a group of motorcyclists in New Hampshire, killing seven of them.

Lesser is vice chair of the Legislature’s Transportation Commission, which heard seven hours of testimony last week from an assortment of Registry officials who acknowledged they were aware of the backlog of out-of-state violation notices but did little or nothing to address the problem.

“What was clear from the top is that a culture had developed where this was not a priority,” he said. “There were clear warning signs along the way and there were red flags along the way and there were audits that flagged these issues. But for whatever reason, the can was kicked down the road and it wasn’t made a priority to get that backlog resolved.”

Lesser said it’s not hard to come up with an explanation for what happened. “There was not a focus on these back-end public safety functions,” he said. “They’re often the kinds of things that don’t get a lot of publicity. They don’t get a lot of attention. They can be thankless – if you do a good job at it and everything goes well, nobody notices. Of course, if there’s a mistake, the results are potentially disastrous. It just sounds like nobody made this a priority and there was no accountability up and down the chain to make sure that these basic functions – I mean, checking the mal – literally checking the mail – was not getting done.”

Levy did not attend the legislative oversight hearing on the Registry of Motor Vehicles and he has had no direct contact with the agency on these issues. But after reading reports on the hearing he came away convinced that what happened at the Registry is something similar to what he has seen and written about before – something he calls the “Nut Island effect.”

Levy has run a lot of big operations – from the Department of Public Utilities to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center to the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority. At the MWRA, he came across a group of workers at the Nut Island sewage treatment plant that worked hard and meant well but nevertheless took a series of actions that ended up damaging the environment of Boston Harbor.

In a 2001 article in the Harvard Business Review, Levy outlined how this group of workers became isolated from the rest of the agency and began to operate under their own set of rules. “The team tells itself that the rules enable it to fulfill its mission. In fact, these rules mask the deterioration of the team’s working environment and deficiencies in the term’s performance,” the article said.

During the legislative oversight hearing, the former registrar, Erin Deveney, said she did not want to respond to problems by hiring more people, even though some of her subordinates said that was what was needed. “The obligation that the Registry had was not to simply say that staff was the answer to all problems,” she said.

Levy said the employees at the Registry were not bad people. “Nobody goes to work every day saying, gee, how can I mess things up and jeopardize the public wellbeing,” he said. But, as Lesser noted, workers tended to focus on the front end of the business and ignore the less visible back-end operations.

Levy said managers of any business have to create an environment where the less visible problems bubble up to upper management. “The most sophisticated leaders of organizations put into place supervisors and other people who make it clear to the front-line staff of that organization that they are trusted, that their opinions matter, and they they’re entitled, empowered, and encouraged to call out problems so that they can be solved before they blow up,” he said.

Addressing the problems at the Registry is more than forcing one or two employees out, Levy said. “It’s very easy in the body politic to just blame or to have somebody fall on their sword or whatever, and that gets you through the week or the month,” he said. “But if you don’t solve the underlying systemic problems or the cultural problems of the organization, another controversy or another crisis will emerge in another year or two or three or four. And they’ll say, gee, what went wrong.”


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