The newly appointed head of Minnesota’s largest state agency — the Department of Human Services — clearly has the confidence of her boss, Gov. Mark Dayton. But Emily Johnson Piper, who served as the governor’s general counsel, has work to do to convince others that she is the best person for this vital, demanding job.
Piper’s sprawling agency has a biennial budget of nearly $34 billion and more than 6,000 seasoned employees. Its responsibilities are daunting and include child protection, public medical assistance programs, services for the disabled and the state’s mental health hospitals. The agency also oversees the sex offender commitment program, which is embroiled in a legal battle over reforms ordered by a federal judge.
As the new commissioner, Piper replaces Lucinda Jesson. Jesson, who has been appointed to the Court of Appeals, served for five years and did so with distinction. Among her achievements: negotiating hundreds of millions of dollars in savings with health insurers — a reform this page repeatedly championed. She also led child protection reforms, launched the arduous process of modernizing services for the disabled and has been a voice of reason on reforms to the sex offender program.
The speed with which Dayton appointed Piper sets off alarm bells. She was named less than a week after Jesson’s new appointment and seems to have been the only candidate seriously considered. It raises fair questions about whether Piper, by all accounts a bright attorney but with little experience in social services administration, was the best candidate.
At 36, Piper brings fresh eyes to the myriad challenges her agency faces. At the same time, she will face a steep learning curve. Her experience as a state Department of Commerce deputy commissioner with health insurance will be an asset but may not easily translate to health care or social services. Managing a staff that has outlasted many commissioners will also be a challenge.
But Monday’s news conference was reassuring. Piper generously praised Chuck Johnson, a respected DHS deputy commissioner. That suggests she recognizes that the agency has strong managers in place. Relying on them, rather than shaking up the staff, would be wise as Piper gains experience, though it shouldn’t prevent her from adding expertise. A high-level staffer dedicated to handling the sex offender program predicament may be a wise add for a novice commissioner.
Piper also would be wise to follow Jesson’s lead on sex offender reforms. Jesson heeded concerns about the program’s constitutionality and explored changes. Piper served as Dayton’s counsel as he shifted from an admirable openness about reform to rigidly defending the legally dubious status quo. It’s not clear how Piper advised Dayton on this issue, but as DHS commissioner she will have to deal with it head-on. Her new role will require a broader approach beyond the political risk calculations that may have dominated her previous job.
Piper also will face questions about her agency’s size, and she should be open to them. On Tuesday, House Minority Leader Paul Thissen proposed breaking up DHS into five agencies. His proposal to improve transparency and services delivery merits debate, though five agencies likely would be excessive. The goal of health reform is to integrate health care and social services. Reorganization of DHS shouldn’t thwart that goal through fragmentation.