Gov.-elect Tim Walz has been busy appointing people to his cabinet. As he fills in names on the organizational chart, one hopes he also is analyzing the chart itself. It is time for another nonpartisan review of the state’s government structure.
In 1948, President Harry Truman asked former President Herbert Hoover to explore ways to reinvent the federal executive branch. The Hoover Commission was created. The commission ultimately came out with some 270 recommendations for realigning executive branch functions, more than two-thirds of which were implemented.
The Hoover Commission was so successful that many states, including Minnesota, created “little Hoover Commissions” to analyze their own executive branch structures. In 1955, in partial reaction to Minnesota’s little Hoover Commission report, Gov. Orville Freeman proposed a significant consolidation of executive branch functions.
Since Freeman’s time, almost all Minnesota governors have looked at reinventing state government in some way. Gov. Rudy Perpich created a task force to look at changes to constitutional offices; Gov. Wendell Anderson established a “loaned” executive program (LEAP) with the private sector; Gov. Tim Pawlenty’s “Drive to Excellence” promoted “one-stop-shopping” to obtain government services; Gov. Jesse Ventura unveiled a “Big Plan,” and Gov. Mark Dayton promoted holding an “unsession” of the Legislature — purportedly designed to simplify state government by eliminating dusty statutes and rules.
Some of these reform efforts were serious while others were merely shallow sloganeering or, as one writer described reorganizations, “a method of creating an illusion of progress while actually creating confusion, inefficiency and demoralization.”
Arguably, the most comprehensive look at restructuring Minnesota state government in recent times was the “Commission of Reform and Efficiency” (CORE). This legislatively approved commission did its work in the early 1990s during Gov. Arne Carlson’s watch. The members were 22 prominent leaders of Minnesota’s private and public sectors. The commission made serious recommendations, including proposing the consolidation of the 26 state agencies directly reporting to the governor into eight executive offices, in order to create a “more manageable span of control” and “greater accountability.”
Yet nothing revolutionary has occurred. For the most part, the same state government agencies that have existed for decades are still in place today. For the past eight years, Dayton has had 24 cabinet members reporting directly to him.
There are a number of reasons to revisit the restructuring of state government now.
First, Minnesotans have witnessed the rapid evolution of the state’s demographics, advances in technology creating instant communication, the stretching out of urban areas, changes in the industrial base and impacts from climate change. These changes require not merely exemplary people to fill public positions, but also a government structure that addresses current needs and is nimble.
Second, people’s historic belief in government has given way to disappointment and cynicism. Belief in government craters when expected services are not delivered — as when senior-citizen complaints about nursing-home abuse go uninvestigated, when polluted water is discovered too late to prevent harm or when still another mass shooting is met with governmental inaction.
Further, many view governmental layers (federal, state, county, local, metro) as a Rubik’s Cube of overlapping authorities constituting a puzzle impossible to master. They ask: Should it really take well over 20 years from concept approval to get a light-rail project constructed?
Third, specific questions about Minnesota’s governance structure need to be faced. Minnesotans look at the technological problems experienced in the MNLARS (driver’s license) and MNsure (health care) rollouts and wonder whether the consolidation of state technology functions eight years ago failed.
Further, given the legislative decision to allow private contracting for audit work previously performed by the state auditor, does that office’s constitutional footing need revisiting?
Is it still appropriate that the $80 billion of state retirement and trust funds are overseen by a board composed of elected officials whose financial acumen may play a back seat to their political concerns?
As a majority of Minnesotans worry about global warming, why is the state’s energy “agency” buried in a department tasked primarily with overseeing insurance regulation, unclaimed property issues and weights and measures?
Additionally, if the state cannot effectively regulate because of insufficient funding, should it be aggressively promoting the use of private causes of action to help deter wrongful conduct?
Not everyone is a fan of reorganization. Sen. Eugene McCarthy said that reorganization usually “means going back to something that failed.” But using a structure designed for the last century to address this century’s problems will certainly fail.
Eight years ago, I worked on Gov.-elect Dayton’s transition team. My task was to prepare background memos on various state departments for the governor-elect to employ in assessing cabinet candidates.
In addition to background information about each agency, each memo had, at the very top, a list of 11 personal characteristics that should be looked for during interviews with potential appointees. Those characteristics included “unquestioned integrity,” “ability to motivate and inspire change” and “commitment to a government reflecting the diversity of Minnesota.”
One of the most important characteristics listed for potential appointees was “reform-minded — not satisfied with the status quo.”
As Gov.-elect Walz fills in the organizational chart, here’s hoping he has put a premium on the “reform-minded” characteristic, choosing people whose commitment to the difficult task of government reform wins out over the easy tendency to tread water, not make waves and maintain turf.
He should also call upon the Legislature to create CORE 2.0.
Robert Moilanen is a retired lawyer and vice-chair of the Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure Board.