The Cromulent Bureaucrat

The official responsible for the Scott administration’s biggest clusterf*ck to date has been … rewarded with a promotion?

You can tell the Gov had no qualms about removing the “interim” tag from Labor Commissioner Michael Harrington’s business cards because he [checks notes] announced the news at 4:56 p.m. last Friday.

Yeah, the classic weekend newsdump.

Harrington, voted the administration official most likely to be featured in the Lands’ End fall catalogue in an imaginary poll, was named interim DOL chief last September in a Falling of the Cabinet Dominos — old-school hardass Tom Anderson stepped down as public safety chief, Commerce Secretary Michael Schirling replaced him, then-labor commissioner Lindsay Kurrle slid into Schirling’s seat, and then-deputy labor commish Harrington moved up the ladder.

His interimship has featured the failure of a long-overdue upgrade of unemployment insurance software, and the UI system’s collapse under the unprecedented demands of the Covid-19 pandemic. Neither can be fully blamed on Harrington; in many ways he was dealt a really bad hand at the worst possible time.

But still. When a team performs poorly, the coach gets the zig. You might say Harrington is the Hue Jackson of Team Scott. It wasn’t entirely Jackson’s fault that the Cleveland Browns had a 3-36-1 record — the front office was a disaster, and Jimmy Haslam may be the worst owner in the NFL. But the coach bore the brunt.

In his Monday briefing, Scott explained his move like so:

“His heart has been in the right place, he’s been putting a lot of hours in, his commitment is unwavering, and I thought he was the right person for the job right now.”

I have no doubt that Harrington’s heart is in the right place, that he’s been burning the midnight oil, that he’s been trying really, really hard.

But if you’re pulling with all your might in the wrong direction, what exactly are you accomplishing?

The pandemic’s impact was impossible to predict ahead of time, and Harrington was saddled with a tiny UI call center, decades-old software, and a federal rulebook designed to prevent fraud rather than expediting relief. But nearly a month went by between the beginning of the UI tsunami and the time when the administration finally sought an outside contractor to help answer the phones. During that time, thousands of Vermonters spent hours upon hours fruitlessly trying to navigate the system.

So that’s strike one against Harrington — an unacceptable delay in seeking help. Strike two was the fact that, at no time, did he implement any kind of voice mail or call-back service. His department just trudged along, answering the phones as best they could, while Vermonters spent hours upon hours dialing over and over again in hopes of getting through.

At the root of those twin failures is an internal culture at the Labor Department that’s heavily invested in enforcement — and not at all invested in public service. Granted, it’s not easy to change the culture when you’re in the middle of a shitstorm, but Harrington has showed little sign that he even recognizes the cultural problem or has an idea of how to change it.

Maybe he and Scott have had some long conversations about this failure, and Scott is confident that Harrington is capable of managing change. But there’s nothing in the public record to suggest that. And Scott has a long record of hiring from within. When a top administrator leaves, he shifts someone over from another department or agency — or he shuffles everyone up one level.

Even at entities with well-established culture issues. The Department of Motor Vehicles, under longtime commissioner Robert Ide, repeatedly assisted federal agents in capturing undocumented Vermonters. When Ide retired, his number two, Wanda Minoli, moved up a notch.

In November 2018, when Lisa Menard stepped aside as corrections commissioner, her number-two Mike Touchette was tapped to replace her. ( Following an exhaustive nationwide search, I’m sure.) Touchette resigned under fire a little more than a year later, after Seven Days published an expose of sexual abuse allegations at Vermont’s women’s prison. He was then replaced by another old hand, former State Police chief Jim Baker. And the department has received criticism for its slow response to Covid-19 in the prison system.

There are times when hiring internally is the best option, especially if there’s a well-established, functional workplace culture. And there are times when outside perspective is needed. When the Gov was originally filling his cabinet, he received good marks for the mix of experienced hands and new faces. (And for gender equity.) Since then, he has almost exclusively resorted to the tried and true, whether it’s the appropriate response or not.

In Harrington’s case, Scott seems to be rewarding strenuous inside-the-box exertion over fresh perspective and creative thinking. Given the Labor Department’s struggles this year, it doesn’t seem like the right call.

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