July 4, 2012
As originally published in the New Hampshire Union Leader
New Hampshire’s state government contains a design flaw intended to make the governing bureaucracy somewhat independent of the elected chief executive and ensure that the state’s CEO has only limited authority over his department heads. As we prepare to transition to a new chief executive next year, there are steps government can and should take to make the new governor more accountable and effective.
In other states the Governor is elected to manage the operation of state government. He or she is the chief executive of the state, appoints department heads or commissioners as assistants to carry out the various functions of state government. Voters elect a governor to lead the government and run the state. New Hampshire is different.
The Executive Branch in New Hampshire is divided into two very distinct pieces. The elected Governor has a small office and staff. Rather than appointing his cabinet upon taking over the office, department heads are appointed for fixed terms that are completely unrelated to elections. A governor inherits the senior management staff of the executive branch and has no ability to remove them. Their terms of office quite often last longer than the governor’s term. If a senior official’s term happens to expire during the Governor’s tenure, the governor has the opportunity to appoint a new person or reappoint the commissioner. If it doesn’t happen to expire, he’s stuck with that person and can’t remove him or her except for malfeasance.
The biggest problem with this system is that it reduces responsiveness to the people and makes a managerial model of government nearly impossible. New Hampshire elects her governor every two years to keep him or her as accountable as possible. Yet the governor is not given the authority to carry out the vision he placed before the voters by appointing key lieutenants or changing key members of the senior leadership.
Governor Lynch has been in place for almost eight years at this point but in his first six months in office, he had the opportunity to appoint or re-appoint only 5 of the eighteen department heads. For example, the largest department was headed by John Stephen, appointed by Lynch’s predecessor, publicly at odds with the governor, but who didn’t leave until well into the governor’s second term.
The situation was not unique to Governor Lynch. His predecessor, Craig Benson, had the opportunity to appoint or re-appoint only 6 of the 18 department heads. During her first six months in office, Jeanne Shaheen was able to appoint only seven of the eighteen; Steve Merrill four of eighteen and Judd Gregg five of the eighteen.
Both Gregg’s and Merrill’s numbers include two commissioners whose offices were changed to serve at the pleasure of the Governor. That sensible change made during the significant modernization in the Sununu administration was later reversed. Of the 16 more or less comparable positions that existed before his modernization efforts, John Sununu was able to appoint only 1 in his first six months.
Going forward, both the Republican and Democratic candidates for governor have cause for concern. Only 3 of the 18 department heads will be open during the first six months of the new governor’s term. Six of the new CEO’s department heads are locked in stone and don’t expire during the governor’s term at all including huge areas like Health and human Services, Safety, Transportation and Administrative Services.
The effect of the current management structure is to create a semi-autonomous bureaucracy independent of the elected executive. A good personality can manage by persuasion or antagonism but the underlying structure creates problems. A few years ago one commissioner was criticized by his department for sharing too much information with the Governor’s office – a concept inconceivable to any management theory. Famously, one governor twenty years ago demanded his transportation commissioner’s resignation. The commissioner is said to have replied “I don’t work for you” and ignored the request.
The independence creates a dynamic in which a governor elected by the voters to run government a certain way has only limited authority over the management over the enterprise he’s been hired to run. His or her deputies, department heads, “vice presidents,” don’t work for the chief executive but have an independence that leads to the reluctance to share information referenced above.
As a start, policymakers should not make any appointments between now and the new governor taking office, at least in the major departments of government. Next, the structure of government needs to be changed to both give the elected CEO the authority to run the government and us the ability to hold him or her accountable for performance.