THE House DHS Working Group has unveiled its recommendations, and the attention-grabber is a plan to overhaul the agency's governing structure. That change will take a vote of the people to amend the Oklahoma Constitution and eliminate the current Department of Human Services commission. Instead, the governor would control the agency through an appointed director requiring Senate confirmation.
Under the plan, policy recommendations and accountability oversight would be shifted to four five-member volunteer citizen panels. Those groups would separately tackle the areas of children and family issues, disability issues, aging issues, and agency administration.
The current governance structure was established in the 1930s and designed to insulate the agency from political influence. That was a good idea that has had an unfortunate result. As state Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, puts it, we now have an agency “that is virtually impenetrable.”
Furthermore, without an overhaul of governance, lawmakers say some reforms could be thwarted. Legislators hope to pass a workforce improvement plan for the agency to increase employee pay and retention, and improve services. They also want to vertically integrate divisions so the people responsible for programs and policies are also involved in implementation. We believe both actions deserve support.
But under the current governance structure, Nelson notes the agency “can ignore” those plans “and not be in trouble.”
Even for those serving as DHS commissioners, the current structure is problematic since it is virtually impossible to possess the appropriate subject-matter expertise on every issue DHS oversight requires.
The citizen groups, on the other hand, would allow those with expertise in specific areas to focus on those topics. That should provide effective watchdog oversight that DHS has often lacked in the past.
That is good, but at the end of the day authority to run the agency will rest solely in the hands of the governor-appointed agency director.
That consolidation of power holds both peril and promise. Its main appeal is that it breaks down the bureaucratic calcification that envelops DHS. And in the short term, the heat will be on the new director — and the governor — to turn things around, which should result in improvement.
Given DHS's long-standing and serious problems, we believe policymakers should err on the side of greater accountability — even if it means junking decades of agency practice.
The House working group conducted numerous meetings in 20 counties to gather information when formulating its plan. It is clearly the result of a serious, thoughtful effort. But we worry about rushing such major changes in the final two weeks of session.
We support the broad goals outlined and many individual reforms unveiled. Oklahoma must not perpetuate a system that allows DHS leadership to ignore self-inflicted problems or public outrage.
However, just as the 1930s reforms have since created DHS accountability issues, a hurried process in 2012 could lead to other unintended consequences. As House lawmakers noted, this is only the beginning, and much follow-through will be required.