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.”

BRUCE MOHL


BEACON HILL
Shaleen Title abstains on most final license votes of the Cannabis Control Commission, a “symbolic gesture” that reflects her belief that the host community agreements are illegal. (CommonWealth)
Ben Forman of MassINC says justice reinvestment receives some important seed money in the recently passed budget. (CommonWealth)
Berkshire Eagle editorial slams the Legislature for failing to come to terms on a hands-free-driving bill.
Citing privacy concerns, Gov. Charlie Baker on Friday vetoed the Janus legislation. (State House News)
Rev. Vernon K. Walker says America needs a moral revival, and passing of the Safe Communities Act would be a good start. (CommonWealth)
MUNICIPAL MATTERS
 The Fall River Redevelopment Authority is exploring its development options for City Pier. (Herald News) 
 
WASHINGTON/NATIONAL/INTERNATIONAL
The country reels from back-to-back mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio, with renewed calls for gun control measures and, reports the New York Times, a spotlight on “angry words directed at immigrants on the southern border in recent weeks by right-wing pundits and President Trump.” Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric “looms over the El Paso massacre.” (Washington Post). In a tweet this morning, Trump suggests the “Fake News” has contributed to the “anger and rage” in the country — and that problems will only get worse if the media doesn’t become more “fair, balanced, and unbiased.”
After a trip to border control facilities in the United States and Mexico, Congressman Stephen Lynchreports that US conditions have improved and he didn’t witness any shortages in basic supplies, but shelters in Mexico are overcrowded. (WGBH)
BUSINESS/ECONOMY
Jennifer Braceras says quotas requiring increased representation of women on corporate boards are a form of “virtue-signaling that benefits only the most privileged and does little to help average people.” (Boston Globe)
Brockton is planning the largest development in the city’s recent history at the CSX rail yard. (Brockton Enterprise) 
 
Local ad agencies no longer enjoy a clear hometown advantage in winning the accounts of local companies. (Boston Globe)
Spring Hill Water, which sells bottled water under various brands, is shutting down after Massachusetts regulators warned that pregnant and breastfeeding women should not drink it because of elevated levels of a harmful chemical. (WGBH)
EDUCATION
New Jersey jail director Ron Edwards said he agrees with protesters outraged by inhumane treatment of asylum seekers, but he said he attended the Congress of Correction in Boston to learn how to improve correctional facilities. (WBUR)
HEALTH/HEALTH CARE
Paul Hattis of Tufts University Medical School outlines interim steps toward Medicare for All. (CommonWealth)
ARTS/CULTURE
In an op-ed, artist Steve Locke says his plans, now abandoned, for a memorial outside Faneuil Hall to the slave trade were “mischaracterized and maligned” by those who suggested he was “the ‘house negro’ pawn of a white mayor.” (Boston Globe)
Northeastern University Professor Thomas Starr is putting signs up around the North Shore purporting to show what will happen after decades more of global warming. (Gloucester Daily Times)
Protesters have modified the lyrics of Amazing Grace, an abolitionist anthem written by a slave ship captain, to spur action on climate change. (Salem News)
TRANSPORTATION 
In news conveniently dropped on Friday night, the MBTA, which once touted a Labor Day target for fully restored Red Line service, now says it hopes to have trains on time sometime in October. (Boston Globe)
With lots of new apartments in downtown Framingham, officials are forecasting more demand on the MBTA’s Worcester commuter rail line. (MetroWest Daily News)
Transit signal priority, which gives buses the green light at intersections, is coming to the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority. (Daily Hampshire Gazette)
CASINOS/MARIJUANA
Medical marijuana customers say their products choices are dwindling as sales shift to the recreational market. (MassLive)
The Mashpee Zoning Board of Appeals approved a special permit modification request to allow Triple M,which presently operates a medical marijuana dispensary, to open a “combined medical-adult use” facility in the town. (Cape Cod Times) 
 
CRIMINAL JUSTICE/COURTS
New documents obtained by The Patriot Ledger offer clues as to why it took Cohasset officials three months to report allegations of child sex abuse.
Everett police killed Oscar D. Ventura-Gonzalez, a 32-year-old Lynn man, after a brief chase ended in Revere early Sunday morning. (WBUR)
Police in Blackstone charge a teenager with shooting a cat with a bow and arrow. (Telegram & Gazette)
Already serving time in prison, Timothy Brosnan is facing more legal trouble – in the form of an insurance lawsuit – after pouring gasoline on his Swampscott home and setting it on fire July 30, 2016.
MEDIA
Heidi Legg of the Shorenstein Center at Harvard outlines the range of promising new initiatives sprouting up to support local journalism. (Boston Globe)
With the GateHouse-Gannett merger set to happen this week, Ken Doctor analyzes all the ramifications, including the emergence of a private equity firm named Apollo Global Management. (Nieman Journalism Lab)