The Star Tribune Editorial Board recently wrote about the problems at the Minnesota Department of Human Services (“Zeroing in on dysfunction at DHS,” Nov. 11). I worked at DHS for a year and a half in county performance measurement. I also wrote a report about a program at DHS that does bad things to poor people really inefficiently. For this I was fired.

I have a doctorate in public administration and have spent much of my life studying government. I wanted to give a perspective from inside the organization.

DHS is too large. There are too many layers and too much going on to allow concerns to gain the attention of upper management. It is hard to even find an organizational chart. Clearly, it needs to be broken up.

The needs of people in acute crisis are not the needs of persons with long-term disabilities. You can’t both provide services and regulate providers. You can’t hand out economic supports and take them back through child support enforcement. Six or eight departments make more sense for all these functions rather than two. Then you could appoint leadership who could intensely focus on the needs of one population.

But in breaking up DHS, we have to admit that DHS is not a department. It is a network form of government, a form most states do not choose. Counties carry out most programs, which means that 87 organizations — each with their own approaches, beliefs, politics, funding issues and business processes — are asked to produce similar outcomes at similar costs. Layer onto that the complexities of tribal governments, nonprofits and for-profits, and it is surprising anything gets done.

We choose a network form of government because we believe that government closest to the people is best. But we must stop being surprised when this system produces substantial inefficiencies.

We ask this highly complicated system to carry out excruciatingly complicated programs. Anyone who has played “telephone” knows that this will fail. I had more than one manager tell me they didn’t know how counties were implementing programs and I was not surprised. We need to radically simplify what we ask the network to do.

First, we should analyze program rules. If a rule doesn’t affect 10% of the people in the program, get rid of it. It isn’t worth the bureaucratic effort to enforce. Put all the rules in one bill and vote them all up or down, like a base closing process. Give DHS a three-year implementation window to make changes to its computer systems and get waivers from the federal government. Implement a “one regulation in, two regulations out” requirement for any new legislation. This sounds extreme, but we have had 50 years of making complexity. We need to simplify.

As to leadership, Dr. Peggy Andrews recently gave a presentation at the Women and Public Service Conference on incompetence in the workplace. She broke down leadership incompetence into two parts:

• People who have not been given the power or authority to lead.

• People who lack the skills or character to be leaders.

It is hard to know who has authority in networked government. I knew lots of managers who saw problems but felt they were powerless to act. The layers of management above made it almost impossible to surface issues. Rocking the boat with even a small number of counties was a quick way for ideas (and careers) to die. Virtually every new idea produces winners and losers. Several major programs don’t even have routine meetings with counties. The smart manager upset no one and kept his or her job. But this does not bring needed change. DHS needs to support change-makers.

And yes, there are many managers who don’t have the skills to manage in a network. That is a personnel problem the new commissioner also needs to address.

Minnesota is an outlier in delivering social services through counties. I don’t think there is the political will to end this system. But we should help make it more successful.

 

Carol Becker lives in Minneapolis.