Sainsbury returns for strategic plan

The ferry Martha’s Vineyard, a vessel repeatedly explored in the HMS report where the recommendation of a strategic plan was made. — Rich Saltzberg


On Tuesday at a joint meeting of the Steamship Authority’s board and Port Council, former HMS Consulting president John Sainsbury, who led a 2018 deep dive into the ferry line that resulted in the transformational HMS report, returned to provide further assistance. 

SSA general manager Robert Davis said Sainsbury, now managing partner of Maritime Consulting Partners, along with SSA spokesman Sean Driscoll and former SSA general counsel Steven Sayers, evaluated consulting proposals for a strategic plan. Based on the trio’s evaluations, the board voted 4-0 to approve a $230,000 consulting proposal from Raftelis Financial Consultants to develop a strategic plan. 

Chair Moira Tierney, New Bedford’s representative, was absent from the meeting. 

In July the SSA issued an RFP for strategic plan proposals, restarting an initiative that was mothballed when the pandemic hit. Davis summed up the utility of a strategic plan as a tool to provide “medium- and long-term guidance and a basis for measuring performance” for the ferry line. A strategic plan remains one of the few unfulfilled recommendations made in the HMS report. The report called for broad reforms within the ferry line. It was presented by Sainsbury in December 2018 following a spring and summer of ferry chaos that stoked passenger anger and brought the Vineyard to its knees. A year later, the majority of the report’s recommendations had been implemented, or were in the process of being implemented, and ferry crises of the scale seen in 2018 didn’t return. 

Unlike its reaction to the strategic plan, the SSA appeared reluctant to adopt the other outstanding recommendation from the HMS report, the installation of a chief operating officer. Legislators ultimately had to force-feed the position to the SSA. Davis has said an evaluation of candidates is afoot, but not much other information has surfaced on the position as 2022 winds down. 

“The SSA is excellent at reacting to situations or ‘putting out fires,’” the HMS report states. “However, the evidence and consensus opinion is also that the SSA suffers from an absence of strategic planning. The result is an organization that lacks meaningful goals, has employees working against each other, and does not adapt to the evolving needs of its customers.”

Among other reasons, the HMS report found a strategic plan would refine SSA management. 

“A strategic plan will provide guidance on the desirable tradeoffs between quantity, quality, and cost, as well as any other metrics that are important to the strategy of the organization,” the report states. “The SSA management generally understands that more planning would provide a net benefit to the organization. Despite this understanding, there are two primary reasons why strategic planning has not been prioritized. First, the daily schedules of management appear to be generally overburdened … Without more management bandwidth, it will be hard for management to transition resources from reacting to planning. Secondly, management is disincentivized to perform long-term strategic planning. In any successful organization, management is held accountable for operational performance. At the SSA, management is not adequately held accountable, because there are no objective performance metrics against which to be measured. One of the benefits of a strategic plan is that it provides a basis for creating and maintaining performance metrics. The lack of performance metrics provides management with job security. Despite this, we observed that the SSA managers generally appreciated the need for more planning, and wished they did a better job at it, as it would improve their ability to manage. Additionally, we observed that management is devoted to organizational success for many admirable reasons, such as pride, compassion, morality, and ethics. However, the incentives for management to not perform strategic planning should not be ignored as a barrier to implementation.”

Sainsbury said five “good” proposals for developing a strategic plan were evaluated. Of those, he said Raftelis “stood out” as the proposal that “really met the objectives” of what the SSA wanted. 

On a prompt from Driscoll, Sainsbury said those objectives included the wish to “instill a strategic planning culture at the Steamship Authority.”

Sainsbury said that meant not just crafting a plan but creating a planning mindset. Sainsbury said he hoped the new consultant would help the SSA establish a planning ”baseline” and imbue SSA culture with planning. Sainsbury emphasized that the planning process would be immersive for SSA management — that they would have a hand in crafting it with the consultant. Jim Malkin, the Vineyard’s board representative, asked Sainsbury to move beyond “consultant’s speak” and articulate what the “deliverables” would be.

Sainsbury said it was “a very good question.” He described as a deliverable “a short-term strategic plan, 3- to 5-year horizon, to identify what areas that the organization, the Steamship Authority, needs to address in order to meet the needs of their ridership in the near-term future.”

Sainsbury went on to say that plan “would then be set up so staff could monitor their progress toward those objectives.”

Peter Jeffrey, Falmouth representative on the board, expressed concern the plan didn’t seem to address emission reduction goals. If ridership is the focus of the strategic plan, Jeffrey said, only the Vineyard and Nantucket would specifically be affected by the plan.

“That seems rather myopic to me if we’re developing a large policy statement,” Jeffrey said.

Sainsbury called ridership “a generalization,” and said he should have used the term “stakeholders” instead.

“So it doesn’t make any assumptions going in,” Sainsbury said, “that one group is going to receive the most attention. The process is designed to look at what are the issues facing the organization, and it taps into all stakeholders involved, and then attempts to develop a strategy to correct those issues.”

Nantucket Port Council member Nathaniel Lowell expressed concern the new consultant might lack sufficient understanding of Islanders’ lifestyles and how that related to the SSA. Lowell summed up the collective desires of SSA ridership.

“Locals who live here, you know what they want? They want the boat to run,” Lowell said, and repeated himself for emphasis. “They want the boat to run. They want to know when it isn’t running. They want to know if it’s going to cancel, so they can go get a hotel reservation and get something to eat at Not Your Average Joe’s. That’s what they want. They want their car parking space at the Yarmouth Road — they want the gate to go up when they stick their card in. They don’t want it to be closed. They want to be able to renew their permit every year without having to text me or Rob [Ranney] why they can’t do it. That’s what they want.”

“I think we’re on top of our game,” Robert Jones, Barnstable’s board representative, said. Jones questioned the efficacy of a strategic plan. “I think we’re living the strategic plan, and we’re getting it done before it even becomes a strategic plan,” he said.

In other business, the board approved the addition of $348,000 of post-launch services from website contractor ADK Group. In November 2021, ADK was awarded a $2 million contract to create a new website and app for the SSA. The website and app are expected to be ready for a beta launch in March. 

The board voted 4-0 to approve a $1 million dry-dock inspection and overhaul of the ferry line’s eldest vessel, the Governor. The award wasn’t pegged to any particular shipyard because the bids aren’t due to be opened until Dec. 16. Davis said the item was brought to the board for a vote to avoid a delay in awarding the contract. The board selected Nantucket representative Robert Ranney as its next chair, and the Port Council chose Oak Bluffs representative Joe Sollitto as its next chair. 

Updated to correct a vote on ADK Group services. 


  1. The SSA desperately needs a strategic plan, and a shift in the culture toward ongoing planning. I hope that the development of the strategic plan includes opportunities for islanders and residents of Falmouth and Hyannis to comment. I’ve heard good ideas from our community, but the SSA doesn’t gave a clear route to suggest them.
    After all, we year-round islanders, and the tourists we support in summer and the freight we bring over, are the backbone of the SSA’s customer base.

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