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Four Takeaways from My Summer at the State House

By: Michael Silvestri 21 Sep 2017

I launched my HBS journey this summer as a Social Enterprise Summer Fellow in the Office of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker. After completing my first year of the MPP/MBA joint degree program at the Harvard Kennedy School this past spring, I was eager to spend my pre-HBS summer working in government, applying my background and newfound policy analysis toolkit in the public service arena.  Prior to graduate school, I had spent six years as a strategy consultant at Oliver Wyman and FSG. These experiences had ignited my passion to help organizations solve complex social problems at scale. While my past consulting engagements spanned the corporate, nonprofit, and philanthropic sectors, I had yet to immerse myself in the public sector. Through the HBS Social Enterprise Summer Fellowship, my goal was to learn how government works from the inside, and to develop a deeper appreciation of the opportunities and hurdles involved in effecting change at the policy level.

I joined the Strategic Operations Team, Governor Baker’s internal consulting arm dedicated to solving the Commonwealth’s toughest operational and service delivery challenges. My time on the team was nothing short of exhilarating. From day one, I had the opportunity to contribute to initiatives as diverse as increasing interagency data-sharing, improving asset management at the Department of Conservation and Recreation, reducing workers’ compensation costs within the Human Resources Division, and exploring state university tuition retention for the Executive Office of Education.  As with all of the Strategic Operations Team’s projects, each of these had executive attention and shared the same bold mission: make government run better.

My primary project—reimagining transportation across the Commonwealth—proved most gratifying. Each year, Massachusetts spends more than a billion dollars moving citizens around. Subways, commuter rail lines, dial-a-ride taxi services, school buses, secured inmate vehicles, and other forms of transit add up to nearly half a billion distinct passenger trips per year. However, these transportation services continue to be purchased and managed in silos, resulting in wide variation in quality, transparency, and cost. Through interviews, benchmarking, and rigorous analysis, the team and I surfaced dozens of innovative, cross-cutting solutions. Our recommendations had potential to yield millions of dollars in savings and transform the way Massachusetts citizens access jobs, healthcare, and other critical services.  For me personally, our work left me with several lessons that paved the way for the courses I’m now taking at HBS:

1. It’s all about people. Our transportation deep-dive confirmed an adage that Governor Baker often reminded us of this summer: “people are policy.” Behind every program we explored were individual government employees and vendors whose day-to-day decisions had a tremendous impact on how those services were implemented. These individuals also tended to be the ones with the greatest understanding of how their programs could be improved. Recognizing this human side of government helped me realize that our project’s success would depend on not just analytical insight but also interpersonal influence. How might we empower agencies to collaborate on transportation services? How might we help foster a culture of continuous improvement? How might we inspire individuals to challenge the status quo within their programs? Now months later, I’m excited to continue exploring these types of questions through my Leadership and FIELD Global Immersion courses at HBS.

2. The process should fit the customer promise. One of the larger transportation programs we explored this summer was the dial-a-ride taxi service promised to MassHealth patients. Traditionally, when these patients are unable to drive themselves to a medical appointment, a transportation broker agency books them a ride and the state pays for the cost of the trip. Our team challenged this process. What if we used new technology platforms to deliver lower-cost, more reliable transportation? What if we delivered the same health outcomes through an entirely different process like telemedicine, saving patients time and saving the state money? Through our HBS course in Technology and Operations Management, my classmates and I are diving headfirst into these types of questions as we learn the tools of process optimization.

3. You can learn a lot from the numbers. By gathering and analyzing reams of quantitative data across the Commonwealth’s transportation programs, my team and I surfaced new metrics that enabled the tracking and comparison of program performance for the first time. We discovered some programs where it made more financial sense for Massachusetts to own vehicles as assets, and others where expensing vehicle lease payments and vendor contracts was the better model. These analyses whetted my appetite for this year’s Finance and Accounting courses, where my classmates and I are now learning to translate financial statements into a deep understanding of organizational performance.

4.  Know your user. From adults with physical disabilities to foster children and inmates, the “users” of purchased transportation services in Massachusetts are extremely diverse.  Sizing and segmenting the user population early on enabled us to develop solutions tailored to each group. For example, scaling up ride-sharing models may be appropriate for paratransit users but not for immunocompromised patients. Rolling out virtual conferencing may benefit inmates and MassHealth patients but not individuals with cognitive or behavioral health impairments who need in-person support. In addition to identifying the core user groups, acquiring and retaining them also matter. Even cutting-edge solutions like The Ride’s pilot with Uber and Lyft need to ensure that enough users actually convert to the new service in order to achieve real savings. When it comes to improving government service delivery, these insights highlight the value of a strong Marketing toolkit, which my classmates and I are now building.

Ultimately, while there are many other lessons from my summer fellowship, these takeaways clearly demonstrate the powerful role that business thinking can play in making government run better. I am grateful to the Strategic Operations Team for granting me frontline exposure to such complex public service challenges, and to the Social Enterprise Initiative for helping make this experience possible.

Michael Silvestri (HBS/HKS 2019) was a 2017 Social Enterprise Summer Fellow working in the Office of Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.