ED Lake, the new director of the Oklahoma Department of Human Services, notes that 2012 was an “incredible year of transformation” for the agency. DHS's longtime director retired, as did two chief officers and the head of the agency's developmental disabilities division. DHS settled a class-action lawsuit and developed the Pinnacle Plan to improve care of children in state custody. Officials decided to close two state centers for those with severe disabilities. The agency had two interim directors before hiring Lake. And Oklahoma voters approved constitutional changes eliminating the committee that ran DHS for decades and instead placed the director, now a gubernatorial appointee, in charge.
Despite all those changes, Lake's message is simple: “This isn't the time to settle in. It's the time to accelerate the changes that are under way.”
That's an encouraging sign. In the past, complacency appeared the default position of agency leaders. Last year's changes were monumental, but represent a starting point, not a finishing line.
The need for further overhaul was illustrated during six listening tours Lake conducted in five cities, meeting with providers and DHS employees. Many problems identified require cultural change at the agency, which we've noted before is possibly more important than any funding or program refinements enacted.
Providers say the agency too often fails to communicate clearly or collaborate effectively with the private vendors who do much of the heavy lifting of DHS policy implementation. Forms and instructions are often confusing or duplicative, or both. Providers and employees noted the need for rate/pay increases, and both groups said agency personnel needed greater customer service training. The agency's computer equipment “is failing.” Some of its aging information technology systems do not work together. This leads to duplication of effort and inefficiencies — at best.
“We're getting pretty close to crisis points on some of these things,” Lake said.
If you described any private business in similar terms, investors would think the company had one foot firmly in bankruptcy court. Instead, DHS is Oklahoma's largest state agency with more than 7,000 employees and a $2.3 billion budget. The agency, tasked with aiding Oklahoma's most at-risk citizens, will always exist in some form; it's important that it at least be competent in basic administrative functions.
To begin that transformation, Lake said a systemic review is under way, declaring, “There are better ways of doing what we're doing now.” That attitude alone may represent a sea change. In the past, agency officials' typical knee-jerk response was to circle the wagons when criticisms were raised.
Lake said the agency's needs could require another $175 million, which isn't feasible at this time, so DHS' immediate budget priorities include increasing staff numbers to reduce workers' caseloads and boosting provider rates.
“We can't PR ourselves to a better image. We have to perform ourselves there,” Lake said. “And that is a process that isn't going to happen in six or seven months by any stretch of the imagination.”
Fixing an agency as large and troubled as DHS won't occur overnight, but Lake seems to be taking the crucial first steps necessary for improvement: admitting problems exist, seriously and transparently assessing them, and refusing to back away from the mandate for change at an agency that historically has tended toward bureaucratic calcification rather than innovation.