Case #2273.0

Leading Pension Reform in Rhode Island: Building Holding Environments to Achieve Change

Publication Date: December 12, 2023
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In 2010, Rhode Island’s public employee pension system was on the verge of collapse: it was just 48% funded and represented a $4.7 billion liability – the largest such pension liability in the nation. For many state employees and retirees, the pension system represented the majority, if not the whole, of their retirement plan. Furthermore, the pension system’s stability affected all Rhode Islanders: if the state did not stabilize the system, it risked a financial crisis of its own making.

In 2011, political newcomer Gina Raimondo became Rhode Island’s State Treasurer. Her successful campaign, with its focus on fixing the pension system, represented Rhode Islanders' appetite for reform, but the process was bound to be contentious, and success was far from guaranteed. To finance its pension system, the state faced being forced to divert public funds from essential public services, reducing those services and the workforces that provided them.

This case explores the collaborative approach undertaken by Raimondo resulting in the October 2011 presentation of the Rhode Island Retirement Security Act (RIRSA) to the state assembly. Although RIRSA included several controversial structural reforms, the bill was signed into law in November 2011, setting the state’s pension system on a path to eventual recovery.

This case can be paired with the the issue brief HKS No. 2274.0, "Holding Environments and Public Problem-Solving." 

Learning Objectives:

  • Distinguishing adaptive challenges and adaptive work from technical challenges and technical work;  
  • Reimagining the work of leadership, and; 
  • Understanding the importance of creating a holding environment for adaptive work.


Other Details

Teaching Plan:
Available with Educator Access
Case Authors:
Beth Fukumoto and Will Eden
Faculty Lead:
Timothy O'Brien
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States