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Former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis advises HSPH students on public sector leadership

November 28, 2011 — “Don’t let anybody tell you that you can’t make a difference in public service,” former Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis told an audience of HSPH students. Dukakis came to HSPH on November 17, 2011, as part of the ongoing “Decision-Making: Voices From the Field” speaker series, which provides students with the opportunity to engage with leaders in a variety of fields.

Dukakis made an impassioned argument for the role of government policy in improving people’s lives. He recalled growing up in the Boston suburb of Brookline at a time when the national high school dropout and infant mortality rates were much higher and Boston was “dirty, angry, and declining.” Dukakis told the students, “The fact that things are better now has a lot to do with people like you who decided they wanted something better and worked like hell to achieve it.”

Anyone going into public service must “have passion for the job,” Dukakis said. “You’ve got to care deeply. If you don’t, forget it.” He offered students a number of career tips: Work to master the complex political environment;  involve key players, including constituents and advocacy groups, in policymaking discussions from the beginning; develop skills as coalition builders and communicators; learn to work with the media; and prioritize a happy home life no matter how busy the day.

Effectively framing an issue in a way that connects with the public is crucial, Dukakis said. He blamed the political problems facing implementation of the health care reform law on a failure by the White House and the Democrats in Congress to effectively communicate its benefits. From the beginning, they should have been talking about providing working people and their families with decent, affordable health care, he said.

Dukakis praised HSPH’s John McDonough, who was sitting in the audience, as someone who knows how to get things done in the public sector. McDonough, director of the HSPH Center for Public Health Leadership, worked with Dukakis as a member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, where he co-chaired the Joint Committee on Health Care. Later, he served as Executive Director of Health Care For All, Massachusetts’ leading consumer health advocacy organization, where he played a key role in passage and implementation of the 2006 Massachusetts health reform law.