A recent North Carolina TV station’s editorial likely didn’t get many Minnesota readers. That’s a shame, because the opinion piece, which lauded the Southern state’s innovative health and human services secretary, was a reminder that there are positive reasons why a state agency shouldering these vital responsibilities can make news.
It’s all too easy to forget that in the blizzard of troubling events that have enveloped this state’s Department of Human Services. Leadership churn, whistleblower allegations and overpayments triggering questions about systemic accounting gaps have left Minnesotans with legitimate concerns about the agency.
Information is still lacking to diagnose what went wrong and evaluate whether satisfactory solutions are in place. The need for this transparency does not evaporate because a new commissioner takes the helm on Tuesday.
Jodi Harpstead, who previously led Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota, will barely have 24 hours to settle into her new office before she’s expected to take the hot seat before a legislative hearing on Wednesday. In an Aug. 30 Star Tribune commentary, state Sen. Michelle Benson, R-Ham Lake, served Harpstead notice that the GOP-controlled Senate wants a turnaround artist who moves quickly.
Benson’s ire is merited. One of Harpstead’s most prominent public appearances after her appointment came on “Almanac,” a public television news and affairs show. It did not inspire confidence.
Those looking for the hard-charging executive who climbed the ranks at Medtronic before a midcareer move to Lutheran Social Service, were sorely disappointed. Harpstead had shockingly little to say about her strategic vision for the agency and what operational fixes are needed. Instead, she offered up gauzy comments about healing at the embattled agency.
Shoring up morale is indeed important, but the agency also needs a pragmatic leader with a game plan. The Wednesday hearing will certainly make that clear, and that’s a message that Harpstead apparently needs to hear.
With a day under her belt, Harpstead won’t have all the answers that lawmakers want, and employment law may prevent some details about the high-level staff changes from being made public. Still, there are many other issues to be aired, such as what qualities Harpstead is looking for as she puts together her team, what operational solutions she’ll focus on first. We’ll also suggest that she look at whether breaking up the sprawling agency would address some of its challenges.
Answers are also needed about whether the high-level staff remaining at the agency were responsible for the overpayments or other mistakes that have generated headlines. If so, should they stay on under Harpstead?
It’s important to note that the Office of the Legislative Auditor is delving into the overpayments. The report from James Nobles’ office is expected this fall and may shed important light about systemic weaknesses within agency accounting. Answers about crucial fixes may need to wait until then.
Harpstead should also see this hearing as a chance to begin enlisting legislators as allies. Lawmakers are frustrated that questions about staff turnover have lingered for months and that they’ve heard about agency problems in the news media before hearing about them from leadership.
Repairing this relationship will take time. But as the North Carolina opinion piece notes, that state’s health and human services head won over an “obstinate” legislature, then moved forward with nation-leading innovation. Lawmakers and Minnesotans should wish Harpstead the best of luck, but they’re also right to demand results.