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At Issue: Replacing top leadership - WCAX.COM Local Vermont News, Weather and Sports-

At Issue: Replacing top leadership

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BURLINGTON, Vt. -

Governor Shumlin's decision to fire Vermont Human Services Secretary Doug Racine comes during high-profile troubles for the state's largest agency, including with Vermont Health Connect and the Department for Children and Families. But UVM Public Administration experts say the move is likely political.

The Vermont Human Services Agency is the largest agency in the state, employing nearly half of state workers and pulling in about 40 percent of the state's budget to provide a range of services for Vermonters.

"Basically, you're dealing with a large bureaucracy," says University of Vermont Public Administration professor Chris Koliba.

He says that agency faces challenges ranging from outdated technological systems to an internal culture that has been entrenched for decades. Steering it isn't easy.

"Sometimes new blood can be a very useful thing. When someone comes in and sees the culture with fresh eyes, perhaps they can plot a course ahead with a new leadership style," he says.

That leadership style, he says, is likely what the Governor wanted to change with the abrupt replacement of Secretary Doug Racine. Koliba says Racine's style was described as more hands-off and that may not fit what the agency needs now. Koliba says Racine's replacement, Dr. Harry Chen, may be more active in managing the agency and representing the governor's interests.

"It just remains to be seen how his successes, or what he has been able to accomplish in one entity, can translate over to another," he says.

He also says in bureaucracies, many of the decisions made lower down filter up, and the person at the top can be held more accountable for them if they don't go right. But he says this is likely also a political move.

"I don't actually believe that Secretary Racine is necessarily a 'fall guy' as much as as the governor prepares for his next campaign, that there is an opportunity to hit the reset button," he says.

Koliba says getting rid of leadership at the top just to appease public outcry over problems within the agency would be a bad decision. But he says he believes the governor is trying to create a blueprint for another potential term.

"The governor is sending a signal to the agency, to the rest of the state, to voters, that there was a level of dissatisfaction with the agency. And from a messaging standpoint, that will have an effect," he says. "Now, will it have the effect that people roll up their sleeves and implement changes, or will it be, well, we'll just wait for the next person to come and go?"

One thing Koliba says he is also not certain about is whether Dr. Chen's appointment is a permanent one or if Governor Shumlin wants him to assess the department's needs while a longer-term replacement is found.

 

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