Baker advisory panel is just the first step: The state needs a broader group of diverse leaders to advise it on the long road out of the coronavirus pandemic

May 1, 2020 | Boston Globe, Council in the News

May 1, 2020
Boston Globe
By The Editorial Board

Governor Charlie Baker is right to think that government can’t possibly have all the answers for navigating the path out of pandemic closures. But rarely have so few been tasked with so much as have the 17 members of his Reopening Advisory Board.

The group has until May 18 to report to the administration “on strategies to reopen the economy in phases based on health and safety metrics,” according to the mandate published by the governor’s office.

At his Thursday briefing, Baker said that members of the group have been spending “three, four, five hours a day on Zoom calls” with “different verticals” to come up with a plan. That plan is expected to include “DPH-approved workplace safety standards, industry frameworks, and customer protocols and guidelines, including enforcement mechanisms and coordination with municipal leaders.”

Baker said that he intentionally wanted a small group “of smart people in a variety of sectors” who could reach out to others in their respective communities for the board.

Recruiting the group was an important first step. But reopening the state is going to take all kinds of expertise, from diverse leaders and diverse sectors working over a long period of time that may well extend into the next governor’s administration. And given this state’s remarkable font of scientific, educational, and business expertise, Baker’s outreach seems small-bore relative to the scale of the crisis.

In addition to the state’s public health commissioner, the group includes two other health care professionals, two mayors and the chief of staff to Boston Mayor Marty Walsh, the head of Cape Air, an executive of a clothing manufacturer, the chief executive of Davio’s restaurants, and a Nantucket resident who is the owner of a bookstore and part-owner of a brewery there. The only representative of higher education in this education-heavy state is the president of Worcester Polytechnic Institute.

No one from organized labor or the arts or the tourism industry has a voice on the committee. The board also lacks sufficient representation from large venues such as concert halls that depend on crowds gathering or from the state’s biotech industry.

The absence of any labor representative or “a professional who can provide occupational health and safety expertise” has already been noted by the Massachusetts Coalition for Occupational Safety and Health, which urged that the advisory board be expanded.

MassCreative, in a similar letter to the governor, asked him to “consult leaders of the creative and cultural sector as you develop a reopening framework.” Its signers represent nearly all of the state’s major cultural institutions.

Making up for the board’s deficiencies are other groups already hard at work on what the next phase of their respective sectors could look like in the days ahead.

The Massachusetts High Technology Council, with the support of McKinsey & Co., has embarked on its Recovery and Return to Work Initiative aimed at providing “business leaders and innovation economy employers with peer-validated and timely information needed to help them restart operations and return to work safely and successfully.” It presented those findings to the advisory panel Thursday.

The famed artistic director of the American Repertory Theater, Diane Paulus, is already collaborating with Joseph G. Allen, assistant professor at Harvard’s Chan School of Public Health, on “A Roadmap to Recovery and Resilience for Theater.”

Baker’s interest in keeping his advisory group lean is understandable. But there’s lean and then there’s being put on a starvation diet. It is critical moving forward that the board either be formally expanded or continue to tap the expertise of external groups so that it better represents the state’s wide concerns. Chris Anderson, president of the High Tech Council suggested a successor group, looking for longer-range solutions, could be a more broad-based public-private partnership with a “multiyear agenda.”

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo named more than 100 members to his NY Forward advisory group, including the heads of several pharmaceutical firms, a number of university presidents, the heads of the state’s major unions, most of its sports teams, major philanthropies, and civil organizations.

Connecticut Governor Ned Lamont, whose state is not a member of the six-state regional compact of which Massachusetts and New York are parties, named his advisory board April 23, chaired by Dr. Albert Ko, an epidemiologist from the Yale School of Medicine, and Indra Nooyi, former PepsiCo CEO. It numbers nearly 50, not including a contingent of relevant state officials, and includes at least two labor leaders and the heads of both the restaurant and lodging associations.

Advisory boards ought not to be mere window dressing. There are difficult decisions that lie ahead, and an advisory board with a broader reach would inevitably result in broader buy-in from hard-pressed employers and an anxious public. Baker has a golden opportunity in the days ahead to build support for reopening plans and to tap the Commonwealth’s wealth of expertise.

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