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Editorial: Doug Racine's ouster and the lessons learned

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Posted on August 14, 2014 |
By Emerson Lynn



When the head of a state agency is fired, the reasons for the dismissal should be required reading for other agency heads and potential successors. That is particularly true in the case of ousted Agency of Human Services Secretary Doug Racine.

Mr. Racine was told Tuesday his services would no longer be needed, that the Shumlin administration was looking for someone more engaging, someone with stronger management skills. He was immediately replaced by Dr. Harry Chen, the state’s Health Commissioner, who will serve on an interim basis.

The dismissal was a complete surprise to Mr. Racine, who said he had no inkling his talents weren’t sufficient for the job.

To a potential successor, that would be lesson number one. When you manage an agency responsible for half the state’s employees and 40 percent of the state’s budget, it’s a given that what you do and how you do it will be the subject of intense scrutiny. Knowing what the boss thinks of your direction and efforts is axiomatic. It’s called communication. It’s your job to know what the boss thinks of your work.

Lesson number two: In the political world, it’s understood that you don’t put the governor (your boss) in a situation that makes him look weak. When your agency has a problem, it’s you that takes the heat. It’s you that offers the explanations. It’s your job to make the governor look as if he’s made the correct choice in choosing you to be part of his cabinet.

When the agency’s Department for Children and Families was being blamed for policy failures in the deaths of three young children this year, Mr. Racine was largely absent from the discussion. He was quoted as saying that he found his value to be a leader who stayed above the fray.

He forced the governor to be the one doing the explaining.

And stay above the fray, he did. For the three-plus years he’s served as secretary his public profile has been marked by one phrase: “Where’s Doug Racine?” The governor was always the one forced to fill the void.

Allowing that to happen was Mr. Racine’s mistake. Allowing it to continue was Mr. Shumlin’s.

Lesson number three: It’s more than a numbers job. Mr. Racine insists the agency was being well run and that his focus was being placed on a results-based agenda to be able to measure what the department does, and how well it does it.

Fair enough. But his agency is spending more, not less, and if the agency has made progress, no one knows about it. Managing this agency, with six departments, 3,549 employees and a $2.3 billion budget, requires someone better at steering the ship than paddling the oars.

The person who eventually succeeds Mr. Racine (assuming Gov. Peter Shumlin is re-elected) needs to acknowledge these lessons. Equally important, will be the understanding reached between the governor and Mr. Racine’s successor about expectations and how they are to be managed.

The person who manages the Agency of Human Services is responsible for programs that touch a huge swathe of the Vermont population. He or she will need to be given permission to innovate, to search for best practices, and to hire the talent necessary to break the inertia that paralyzes current operations.

This will be doubly important as the state continues its march toward a single payer health care system, a process that rests at the center of the agency’s responsibilities.

Then, there is lesson number four: it’s not a political position. When Mr. Shumlin was elected he tried to assemble his “team of rivals” by appointing three of his political challengers to his cabinet. Mr. Racine lost his primary battle to Mr. Shumlin by 189 votes. His “reward” was his cabinet position.

Sometimes that works. Most often it does not. Particularly with an agency the size and scope of the Agency of Human Services.

The inclination to continue in a political vein should no longer exist. Given the agency’s problems, its size, it’s growing costs and the health care challenges ahead, it would be advisable to search far and wide for the best talent imaginable.

Lesson number five: One mistake shouldn’t be followed by another.

— Emerson Lynn, St. Albans Messenger

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