Show, don’t tell

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Any commentary about the recent release of top-to-bottom review of the Steamship Authority by HMS Consulting has to begin with how utterly tone-deaf it was of the SSA to hold the first meeting on the topic at mid-afternoon on a Monday at Falmouth High School.

In theory, the idea was to make the initial release of the report accessible to all of the SSA ports. But it made the reveal of the report virtually inaccessible to the people of Martha’s Vineyard who demanded the outside review after repeated mechanical failures in the first four months of 2017 left Vineyard passengers stranded. (As Mansion House co-owner Josh Goldstein has been saying for months now, the SSA needs to hold meetings when the working public can actually attend and have their voices heard.)

And let’s not forget, SSA general manager Robert Davis wanted to be able to fix the problems in-house, and several members of the Steamship Authority board seemed poised to go along with that until the public demanded a meeting on Martha’s Vineyard — the meeting that ultimately prompted a vote for the independent review. (These would be the same board members who gave Davis an above-average grade on his performance review after a year of unprecedented mechanical problems with the SSA’s fleet of ferries.)

We’ve now had a few weeks to digest the HMS report, and it should worry anyone who relies on the Steamship Authority.

The report makes reference to a British ferry, the Herald of Free Enterprise, that capsized in 1987, killing 193 people. The accident was traced to a “disease of sloppiness” on the part of the vessel’s management.

“Since this incident, the industry has evolved significantly, but evidence suggests the SSA has not,” the report states. It goes on to say several “key personnel do not endorse this theory,” calling the SSA ferry incidents in the spring of 2018 isolated, the result of a “perfect storm of events,” and that “nothing is broken” within the SSA.

“But from our experience, this could not be further from the truth,” HMS concluded.

Ouch. Let that sink in.

Yes, as the SSA has pointed out in its press releases, public meetings, and in a recent email to customers, the report does point out some positives, including the commitment of the SSA’s employees. But even those are overshadowed by HMS essentially stating that the SSA is lucky that it hasn’t had even more problems.

The overall investigation revealed SSA management deficiencies, “counterproductive frugality,” poor accountability, factions with competing interests, and a culture that does not proactively seek to mitigate risks. The frugality claim did make some observers choke a bit, as we watch the SSA in the midst of massive construction projects — the recently completed administration building and the controversial Woods Hole terminal.

As The Times reported last week, this isn’t the first time an outside consultant has pointed out deficiencies with the Steamship Authority. Reporter Rich Saltzberg dusted off a 1994 report done by McKinsey and Co. that found alarmingly similar issues within the ferry service. The SSA was described in that report as being reactive and continuously “putting out fires.” That report pointed to a lack of planning and a fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants mentality for some issues, including vessel maintenance.

While some measures were put in place back in 1994, such as creating the Fairhaven maintenance facility, it appears, given some of the findings in the HMS report, that after a period of time, the SSA slipped back into some old habits.

Even before last spring’s unprecedented string of mechanical failures, there were people raising warning signs about the entrenched culture of the SSA. Tristan Israel, a Tisbury selectman and county commissioner, questioned hiring Davis from within rather than having a more formal search for a more qualified candidate.

That’s why whatever the Steamship Authority does in the coming months in response to the HMS Consulting report and the as-yet-unfinished communications report, it has to be done with the utmost transparency. (Someone tell Robert Jones, the Barnstable representative on the board, that it’s not a good look to bemoan that public business has to be done in public under the Open Meeting Law. “I think the Open Meeting Law restricts a lot of good government,” he said at the board’s first meeting after the HMS report was released.)

Trust is built by showing, not telling, customers that everything is OK. We’ll be watching.