DHS: Now Comes the Hard Part

New Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead's “90 Day Review and Plan” for the troubled agency was a thoughtful and encouraging plan of action from an experienced manager and leader.  Now come the implementation realities and challenges presented by the state’s human capital system in delivering on it.     ("From the Director"  Nov/Dec 2019 Fiscal Focus)

Recently, new Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead testified before the House Health and Human Service Finance Committee on her “90 Day Review and Plan” for the beleaguered agency.    As Chair Liebling noted, Commissioner Harpstead is believed to be the first commissioner in DHS history with a business background and private sector experience in managing large organizations.    For an agency employing 7,300 people with an all funds budget of $36.9 billion, that observation is both welcoming and damning at the same time.

Commissioner Harpstead’s testimony was designed to deliver two messages 1) provide assurances and supporting evidence that the department, contrary to a lot of public perception, is not on fire; and 2) offer an assessment of the problems that do exist and what DHS plans to do about them.     With respect to the latter, the Commissioner described DHS as a “high-capacity agency which is soft around the edges,” and defined the core problem as “soft interdepartmental process controls.”   As a result, an initiative entitled “Operation Swiss Watch” began on Day 91 of her tenure in which internal process improvement teams trained in quality control methods and tools will work to design and implement needed interdepartmental process controls.  The objective: “get the Department’s processes and systems humming like a Swiss watch.”

Unsurprisingly, management and workforce considerations are an integral feature of “Operation Swiss Watch.” The DHS organization chart has been revamped to improve lines of communication and accountability.   New leadership positions have been created; some others have been eliminated.  And, encouragingly, the kneejerk “it’s too big, split it up” solution to what ails the agency was tempered by the Commissioner’s observations that such actions often lead to the replication of infrastructure (a.k.a. cost), defeats the purpose of centralizing process controls, and can run counter to the intra-agency communication, coordination, and planning on which county agencies on the front lines of service delivery depend.  In short, it was a thoughtful and encouraging plan of action from an experienced manager and leader.    

So far, so good.  Now come the implementation realities and challenges presented by the state’s human capital system in delivering on the plan.  Commissioner Harpstead noted the Department would like to hire additional experts.   That should have prompted a question from committee members on what expertise is in short supply in an organization of over 7,000 employees containing nine different supervisory and management job classes, and most importantly, why it’s in short supply.    If we assume this needed expertise represents the creation of yet another job class, the demand for these skills and their labor market prices will do battle with the state’s job evaluation process and the roulette wheel of pay equity with completely different government occupations. 

DHS apparently has already experienced a talent attraction setback.  In response to a committee member question about the ability to attract and retain talent, the Commissioner replied they had “swung for the fences” in trying to get three particular people.   Two declined because of life circumstances, but the third declined because of the state salary structure.    The state may have to eventually settle for a “double” in that important hire.

But the most interesting exchange originated from a committee member who noted getting a complex, mammoth operation like DHS running like a Swiss watch requires the right tools and the ability to move the gears around.   He argued the accountability and process improvements described in the Commissioner’s testimony demands the ability make appropriate human resource changes of all types.   He asked the Commissioner if she needed any help from the legislature in increasing the ability to make these types of changes.   “Those are good questions,” she replied.  “I don’t know yet.”

I suspect she will know the answer in the very near future.