Lack of public sector experience is troubling

MBTA's new GM has never worked in government before

THE APPOINTMENT OF LUIS RAMIREZ as the new general manager of the MBTA again raises the question of whether a successful private sector businessman or woman can make a successful transition to the public sector.

One school of thought, usually offered by those with limited public sector experience, argues that proven business leaders can simply transfer their management skills to government where they are sorely needed. At the other end of the spectrum are those, including public sector unions, who contend that the values and challenges of the two worlds are so different that the skills are not transferable.

There is some reality in both views though both are, of course, exaggerated. However, it is too simple and not helpful to conclude that the truth lies at some midpoint between the two extremes.

The case of the last two governors is illustrative. Mitt Romney had no government experience, except very tangentially when he took over the 2002 Winter Olympics. Deval Patrick had a brief stint in Washington but his career was as a lawyer not a public sector manager.

Both men struggled to implement their agendas. Both viewed the governor as a CEO, not understanding or appreciating the role of the Legislature and the inherent limits of gubernatorial power in our democracy. To be sure, both adjusted their expectations while in office, but their lack of government experience was a significant liability that neither one fully overcame.

Charlie Baker, on the other hand, brought to the governor’s office more high level government experience than any Massachusetts governor in memory, and likely more than any other governor in the nation. Under former governors William Weld and Paul Cellucci, Baker ran the state’s largest secretariat (the Executive Office of Health and Human Services) and its most far reaching (the Executive Office of Administration and Finance). As governor, he has developed close relations with the Legislature (as another Republican Frank Sargent did 50 years ago) and has quietly cleaned up many of the management problems he inherited from Patrick.

Of course, Baker also led the successful turnaround of Harvard Pilgrim Health Care, demonstrating that some individuals can be successful leaders in both the public and private worlds.

Baker’s experience at Harvard Pilgrim may have played a role in the selection of Ramirez, who was lauded by the administration as a turnaround specialist. And, of course, despite all the good work of the T’s Fiscal and Management Control Board, the MBTA is a quintessential candidate for a turnaround. Nevertheless, the decades-long problems confronting Ramirez at the T will dwarf anything he has dealt with in his career.

Independent legislators, public sector unions, inflexible work rules, limited resources, media scrutiny, constituent pressures, advocacy groups, a charged political environment — these and other factors will all be new to Ramirez.

Leadership is a rare quality in either the public or private sectors. But in my experience in senior roles in both government and business, the challenges facing public sector managers are greater, and require more diverse talents, than those confronting private sector managers.

Meet the Author
WBUR’s story on Ramirez’s issues at Global Power Equipment Group give one pause. His lack of public sector experience is an even more serious concern.

The citizens of the Commonwealth have a lot riding (no pun intended) on his success, and we all wish him well. But if he makes a successful transition to running a very complex and politicized government agency, he will be the exception not the rule.

Michael Widmer is the former president of the Massachusets Taxpayers Foundation and a member of the board of the Massachusetts Health and Hospital Association.