FOR years, the Oklahoma Department of Human Services has drawn attention, nearly all of it bad. Stories of preventable child abuse and death have become too numerous to mention and the agency recently settled a federal class-action lawsuit alleging failure to protect foster children.
To have so much go so wrong for so long can't be ascribed solely to bad luck. It's an indication of systemic failure.
To turn things around, lawmakers who spent months studying DHS ultimately decided that administrative overhaul was necessary. The resulting State Question 765, which got strong bipartisan support, would amend the Oklahoma Constitution to eliminate the Oklahoma Commission of Human Services that runs the agency. It would instead place administrative control solely in the hands of the agency director, who would be a gubernatorial appointee requiring Senate confirmation.
This is dramatic change at Oklahoma's largest agency, which employs roughly 7,000 people and deals with everything from food stamps to child abuse to elder care. Nonetheless, we believe the potential for agency improvement is greater if SQ 765 is adopted than if the current governance structure is maintained.
We therefore urge Oklahomans to vote “yes” for SQ 765.
Currently, the DHS director is hired by a nine-member commission whose members are gubernatorial appointees serving staggered nine-year terms. As a result, a governor must typically be re-elected to a second term before naming enough appointees to cause change at DHS. That governance structure was developed in the 1930s to shield DHS from political influence. It worked too well: Today, the agency is often resistant to change even when the public screams for it.
By making the director a political appointee, SQ 765 will increase the public's ability to influence the agency. The director, or at least the governor who appoints the director, will be far more responsive to public outcry, increasing accountability.
Should voters approve SQ 765, legislation already signed into law will also go into effect creating four citizen advisory panels. The five-member panels, appointed by the governor and Republican and Democratic legislative leaders, will delve into four separate areas — children and family issues, developmental issues, aging issues and agency administration. Those groups will provide in-depth subject-area oversight that seldom occurs under the current Oklahoma Commission of Human Services.
Admittedly, the success of the working groups depends upon future directors' willingness to use them effectively. Still, the groups will be a forum for constantly assessing and publicizing problems at DHS that might otherwise go unnoticed.
Unfortunately, the ballot language drafted by the attorney general could cause some voters to think SQ 765 would abolish DHS entirely. This isn't the case. It changes the agency's governing structure while leaving the agency intact.
Some may worry that having a political appointee head DHS will result in rapid turnover or, worse yet, cronyism. But we can replace the Oklahoma governor every four years and that seems to work fine. Self-preservation should keep most governors from naming incompetent people to head DHS or arbitrarily replacing a good director. The governors of most other states have similar DHS appointment power.
Most importantly, the current system simply isn't working when it comes to child protection. DHS is the only state agency to be the subject of three class-action lawsuits in recent decades; its record of failure in child-welfare cases is extensive. Recent depositions made clear that some members of the current DHS commission were largely asleep at the wheel.
For these reasons, we urge voters to approve SQ 765. It should improve a flawed system and, we hope, increase the safety of endangered children.