Leaders or Politicians?

It would appear that the new leader of Vermont’s largest agency ($2.5B), the Agency of Human Services, was chosen more for his political affiliation than his human services leadership experience or skills. Sadly, this is all too common in Vermont and elsewhere and a major reason why we make so little headway rightsizing our institutions and improving delivery on their missions.

AHS comprises six complex departments, each vital to the lives of Vermonters:

  1. Dept. of Children and Families (DCF) — already struggling with high parental rights terminations,
  2. Corrections — under popular and legislative pressure to decarcerate,
  3. Disabilities, Ageing and Independent Living – addressing an ageing Vermont population,
  4. Dept. of Health Access – amid major change wrought by accountable care organizations (ACOs),
  5. Dept. of Health — trying to address a bloom of drug, alcohol, and vaping addictions,
  6. Dept. of Mental Health –trying just to catch up to current clinical and residential needs.

Mr. Smith’s resume is diverse but, other than replacing Charlie Smith as AHS Secretary briefly during the Douglas Administration, he has little in his resume related to AHS’s significant challenges. A former Navy Seal, he has also served as Deputy State Treasurer and Chief of Staff under Douglas, president of troubled Fairpoint Communications, Interim President of Burlington College, and a WDEV radio talk show host among other posts.

The architecture of effective governance is similar across the three sectors: for-profit, for-mission, and governmental. In the first two, a governing board searches for and hires the most appropriate leader to achieve their goals. In the government sector, the citizens are the governing board and they choose their leader in the electoral process. The leaders in all three – president, executive director and president or governor — then hire and lead their own management team to deliver on the promises for which they were chosen. It’s when politics becomes the primary criteria for hiring instead of demonstrated experience, knowledge and wisdom, that goals inevitably become compromised.

Politics has two dimensions, one contributing to leadership and the other to ideology. Arguably, political skill is part of any strong leadership profile, the ability to bring people along in support of a consensus strategy. Ideology, however, is personal, often predetermining end goals and ignoring consensus. And when ideology becomes the sole driver of decision-making, it severely compromises leadership.

I have been, and am currently, part of a non-profit leadership search and the process is intentional, inclusive, exhaustive, and transparent. Why not the same for our most vital institutional leadership positions rather than having them filled with political partisans and cronies whose skills are measured politically rather than in relevant leadership experience and wisdom? Vermonters are rarely well served by political appointments. This is not to say that there aren’t appointees who are inherently ethical and accomplished people, but that their resumes are often exemplars of political survival rather than mission-driven experience.

Political appointees, cronyism, and corruption have reached an artform in the current federal administration. Ambassadors have long been chosen not for their diplomatic skills, experience, and knowledge, but for the size of their political donations. Today, federal agency heads are chosen for their political allegiance to the President and his goal of neutering their agency’s effectiveness. History teaches us that the endgame of political cronyism is an authoritarian regime, unaccountable to the well-being of its citizens and their pocketbooks. Hardly the case in Vermont, but we can and must do better to make progress built on consensus and new ideas.

Personal political relationships and political contributions are just that, personal not professional, and thus irrelevant as criteria for leadership. A demonstrated culture of leadership, experience, professional accomplishments in the relevant field and references are the criteria for choosing leaders. The rest is extraneous and counterproductive.

Vermont can only benefit from adopting leadership search criteria and process consistent with best industry and non-profit practices. An Ethics Commission, (when we get one) might easily draft such a search process for helping governors and agency heads find and engage our best leaders.

In our seven agencies, six boards, and 21 commissions, Vermonters have too much at stake not to be confident that their leaders are chosen to deliver on mission, instead of ideology.

Vermonters today feel an urgency to bridge political divides where possible, redefine and right-size our institutions, and ensure that competent leadership plans for and quantifies progress. We have chosen great leaders in the past and can certainly do so again.