This story has been modified to correct the reason for Kristen Lepore's initial reluctance to apply for the position of administration and finance secretary.
BOSTON >> Each responsible for balancing the budget, righting the MBTA and keeping children safe, the Baker administration's three female cabinet secretaries provided a window Tuesday morning into their governance approach.
Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders described how she and the new commissioner of the Department of Children and Families looked into departmental policies following some tragic failures to protect children last year.
"It didn't make any sense," said Sudders, describing the mix of directives as "almost incoherent." Sudders said, "As I said to the governor at the time, 'I read all the policies, practices and the like, and the reality was if I was a social worker I would not have known what to do because we had not given social workers the tools to do their job.'"
Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said she and Sudders get along well with little competition over budget money between the two secretariats, and noted that Administration and Finance Secretary Kristen Lepore, the third cabinet official sharing the stage Tuesday, is the arbiter of funding.
Transportation operations are funded in large part through dedicated streams from the state as well as fares and fees, while construction of bridges and purchases of subway cars require capital investment. With a $19.4 billion budget, Health and Human Services is the largest secretariat by far but does little capital spending, Pollack pointed out.
"She doesn't really touch capital. I take all of it, so that works out well, and she takes all the operations, and Secretary Lepore tells us how much we can have, so that collaboration works very well," said Pollack. She said, "I do think that the women do tend to demonstrate how to work together, think together."
The three officials were featured at a Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce Women's Network Breakfast at the Fairmount Copley Plaza, an event moderated by Stephanie Lovell, an executive at health insurance giant Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts.
Lepore said Gov. Charlie Baker had been her mentor years before and working for a governor who previously held her cabinet post — in the Cellucci administration — was helpful, especially when a budget crisis greeted the new governor last year. Speaking of her own process, Lepore also seemed to push back against some of the accusations flung Baker's way by political opponents.
"It's much more than numbers," Lepore said, of the budget. She said, "Good policy drives the budget. It is not the other way around" and said when a choice is made it is "not just a dollar decision. It is a policy decision."
All three secretaries encouraged people to consider government service. Sudders said she meets with women in her office on Saturdays.
"We are always looking for talented people to join our team," said Lepore, who advised women to find a mentor and said she mentored Lauren Peters, legislative director and health policy director at Administration and Finance.
Peters met Lepore on Baker's 2010 campaign, where the Swampscott Republican lost in his bid to unseat former Gov. Deval Patrick.
"The T in particular, but really all of my agencies — they need to be repopulated with talent," said Pollack. She said, "There's just not a lot of people there who are familiar with best practices, who are young and energetic, and can manage the change. There's a lot of people who are good folks who don't fundamentally see the problem with the current business model."
A former advocate, Pollack's first job in government was secretary of transportation, she said. Lepore and Sudders both served in lower-level government posts early in their careers. Lepore, who said she initially didn't want to apply because she "didn't know anybody," later applied for and received a job as an analyst in the Office of Administration and Finance. Sudders, who said she had relied on her network for work, said she worked in the constituent services office of Gov. Michael Dukakis and described another career working for a "complete tyrant" who was demanding, would not thank people and left Sudders with an ulcer.
The job overseeing the largest secretariat is around-the-clock, said Sudders, who said she discussed it with her husband.
"He was completely, 'See you in some number of years,' which is great. It's important to have a supportive spouse," said Sudders.
Pollack also dispensed advice to advocates, recommending they not ignore the systemic problems at the MBTA when advocating for transit.
"Transit advocates in this state have been told for so long that the T's problems all stem from lack of money," Pollack said. She said, "That's what I keep telling advocates — You should be critical friends."