The Land of Generic Expertise

The appointment of Don Rendall as interim chair of the state Natural Resources Board reminded me of something I’ve been pondering for quite some time: Our state government relies heavily on generic expertise. People are often hired to state positions outside of their professional experience. People within the executive branch are frequently swapped around as if they are interchangeable pieces. And people from the same small pool get hired over and over again to different positions. Rarely is someone with specific outside expertise hired for a relevant public sector post. Rendall has been a gas and utility executive, but he has no particular experience in environmental or land-use matters.

This is a long-running theme in state government, but it seems more prevalent in the Scott administration. Every time a top-level vacancy opens up, it’s filled laterally from elsewhere in the executive branch (Mike Schirling, from Commerce to Public Safety) or vertically from within an agency’s ranks (Lindsay Kurrle replacing Schirling, Wanda Minoli replacing Robert Ide) — or the hire goes to someone like Rendall, who brings no specific expertise to the job.

These kinds of hires do have advantages. If you’ve got experience in one part of state government, you have a base of knowledge that’s useful elsewhere. (Susanne Young has been an effective administrator in multiple roles under Jim Douglas and Phil Scott.) If you’ve been successful outside state government, you have skills that can be brought to bear in the public sector. Neale Lunderville has had success in both spheres, and has been called upon more than once for crisis management.

But there are also drawbacks. Hiring from within an agency, or swapping people around within state government, can foster stagnation, satisfaction with the status quo, a lack of vision for positive change. Two examples: The DMV under Ide and Minoli, which has had repeated issues with undocumented immigrants (and has been slow to adapt modern technology); and the Department of Corrections, whose upper ranks are full of DOC lifers — and where interim commissioner James Baker has been struggling to “change the culture.”

In terms of outside hires, private sector success doesn’t necessarily translate into the public sector, which presents unique challenges and opportunities. If a former business executive has a clear idea of their strengths and weaknesses, they can do great things. If not, you wind up with Craig Benson, the onetime tech entrepreneur who served one disastrous term as governor of New Hampshire.

At their best, outside hires bring a breath of fresh air and a new perspective to a job, especially with an applicant with experience specific to the job (DEC Commissioner Peter Walke, who came to Vermont after serving as an environmental administrator in New York State). That doesn’t happen often enough, and our government gets a little stale — or a lot stale — as a result.

I can think of two reasons for state government’s tendency to recycle its top ranks. One is Vermont Exceptionalism, our tendency to over-value Things As They Are. Including people who pile up years of government service whether they’ve been effective or not.

The second is two-year gubernatorial terms. It’s awfully hard to hire outside The Usual Suspects if you can only offer two years of job security. It’s almost impossible to entice non-Vermonters under those conditions. Four-year terms would offer greater stability for prospective administrators.

But that idea also falls prey to Vermont Exceptionalism, and it’ll be a cold day in Hell before we make that change. In the meantime, Scott and his successors (surely he’ll stop being governor someday, right?) would do well to broaden their hiring pool whenever and however possible.


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