THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING
Lawrence Harmon

Balancing public’s need to know with walking the talk

Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan Transportation Secretary Jeffrey Mullan
By Lawrence Harmon
Globe Columnist / April 3, 2011

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STATE TRANSPORTATION Secretary Jeffrey Mullan recently gave the public a case of whiplash. First, he defended his decision to keep the public in the dark for more than a month after a 110-pound light fixture crashed into the roadway in a Big Dig Tunnel. About a week later, he came clean that he was in the dark, too, because his own management team hadn’t informed him of the incident.

Why did Mullan originally feel the need to take a direct hit for something he didn’t do? This is, after all, the state transportation sector, where the art of passing the buck dates back decades. To answer the question, a degree in transportation engineering is less helpful than a degree in psychology.

Mullan, 49, got way too wrapped up in his own philosophy of leadership. A former partner at the law firm Foley Hoag, Mullan embraced public service with a passion rarely seen around here after being named in 2009 to head the consolidated Massachusetts Department of Transportation. Mullan reads and thinks deeply about leadership. He admires modern management theorists, like government reinvention guru David Osborne. Even more, he is drawn to inspirational leaders like Shakespeare’s Henry V, who overcame the odds on the battlefield by stressing the power of shared purpose with his troops. In a public sector where the goal had been to keep your head down, Mullan demanded boldness from his managers. In return, he promised to protect them if they stumbled.

The Feb. 5, 2010, “Secretary’s Message’’ posted on the department’s website is vintage Mullan. He urges his employees to take professional risks and “dream of what is possible’’ to improve the state’s transportation infrastructure and realize the promise of the newly consolidated agency. “Sometimes, we might be wrong,’’ Mullan wrote. “Regardless, please know that, so long as you give your very best, I will have your back.’’

Have your back. Walk the talk. Set an example for others to follow. Be mission-driven. It’s Henry V to the hilt. And that’s what Mullan admits was motivating him when he took the blame for withholding information about the falling light fixture from the public. Never mind that he hadn’t been informed of the problem until March 9, more than a month after the incident.

“My instinct got me into trouble,’’ said Mullan. “I didn’t balance the public’s need to know with walking the talk.’’

Mullan made another big mistake. He didn’t take into account the history of the Big Dig and the public’s deep-rooted suspicion of the project. The falling light fixture caused no physical harm. But it immediately evoked the 2006 Big Dig tunnel tragedy when a concrete ceiling panel fell onto the car carrying Milena Del Valle, killing the Jamaica Plain mother of three. Withholding information from the public also stirred up memories of former Big Dig chief James Kerasiotes, who was fired in 2000 by then Governor Paul Cellucci for concealing the project’s outrageous cost overruns. There are 14 billion reasons why the public wants the truth about the Big Dig.

Was Mullan ever in serious danger of getting fired by Governor Patrick? Probably not. The transportation secretary had plenty of good will stored up with Patrick and the public. Until the incident, he enjoyed an excellent reputation for transparency and community outreach. He is making progress at harmonizing the cultures of the MBTA, Registry, and former Mass. Highway Department and former Turnpike Authority. He created a strategic plan to improve roadways and public transit. And his work ethic goes unchallenged. “Enjoy the weekend,’’ reads the last line of his weekly messages to his staff. But Mullan is often found in the office on weekends.

Even Mullan’s philosophy of pushing authority down through the ranks worked out at the safety level when the fixture fell in the tunnel. Engineers and managers quickly set up a system on their own initiatives to inspect and secure suspect fixtures in the tunnel system. What they didn’t do was brief the boss on a serious matter of public safety. Internal communication had collapsed along with the light fixture.

In the end, someone had to pay. It’s the Big Dig, after all. Frank Tramontozzi, the state’s acting highway administrator, resigned on March 25 after an internal investigation cited him for the communications breakdown. And Mullan learned that there are some backs that he just can’t have if he wants to maintain the confidence of the public.

Lawrence Harmon can be reached at harmon@globe.com.