Time for new direction

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There is every chance in a Trump administration that the spigot might be tightened a ring or two when it comes to Vermont. It might be useful for the incoming Phil Scott administration to plan on it, and hire accordingly.

That is one reason Mr. Scott was elected. People are ready for a pause, a period to adjust to many of the aggressive policies of the Shumlin administration. They want to assimilate, to gain control, to establish a sense of competency and direction.

In a way, the Trump administration gives Gov.-Elect Phil Scott a political opening upon which he should capitalize. He can set the stawge for reduced expectations (less money from the feds) and reorient state government in a way that is more targeted and efficient.

It’s a circumstance perfectly suited to Mr. Scott, who is a fiscal conservative, a social moderate and a businessman dialed in to the need to be able to measure results. He’s long argued there are smarter ways to do more with less. With the Trump years before us, he can now say our options are limited.

He’s right, but to succeed will require vision, patience and the ability of the incoming governor to surround himself with people skilled enough to push through his objectives, and to overcome what challenges may be coming our way from Washington.

To succeed, Mr. Scott and his team will need to change how it looks at state government and how it can be managed.

At a fundamental level, state government essentially manages itself. If the agency head is out for a month, the place still runs, for obvious reasons. When an administration changes, the routine procedure is to replace the person at the top with someone loyal to the new governor. Again, not a lot changes.

A way to change this routine – and still keep the various parts of state government running – is to hire by objective.

Here is an example: Mr. Scott’s primary goal, other than running things more efficiently, is to increase the size and strength of the state’s workforce. Because Vermont is not likely to increase its growth rate at any significant rate anytime soon, the only way to do that is to figure out how to deal with the workforce as it now exists. That means dealing with the 50 percent of our high school graduates who do not go on to college. That involves figuring out how to deal with childcare. That also involves dealing with the social services and health care networks for those at the bottom third of the income scale.

That objective involves at least two key agencies: the Agency of Education and the Agency of Human Services.

But these agencies are managed separately and have little to do with one another. They both have their agency heads who are responsible for all that goes on within their domains.

That doesn’t lend itself to problem solving when it comes to issues that cross agency borders.

So why not hire according to objective and make it such a priority that Mr. Scott would be able to attract a different level talent?

In other words, go ahead and hire the person who is responsible for making sure the agency gets its work done, but then make specific hires for specific objectives, with the understanding that they have cross-agency authority.

Back to the childcare challenge. We will never make any progress dealing with the need to get parents affordable, high-quality childcare if we are not able to rid ourselves of the myriad rules and regulations each agency holds as part of its reason for existence. We will never make any progress if we can’t figure out how to use – in a global sense ¬– all the resources these various agencies have collectively.

And we will never make any progress on any of these fronts if we can’t figure out how to look at state government differently, which means rethinking how those at the top should manage, and how remarkable things can be accomplished by Mr. Scott telling his new team that he’s not open to being told something can’t happen, that he’s only open to being told how it can.

The money is there. The resources are there. What eludes us is figuring out how to break down the organizational and departmental barriers that inhibit progress.

That requires a different mindset. It requires a different hiring process. As Mr. Scott can warn, to get this done we need to act as if we don’t have a choice.

We may not.

Emerson Lynn is co-publisher of the Colchester Sun.