Monday, December 18, 2017

OCPA's Small: Learning from the Health Department


Learning from the Health Department
By OCPA President Jonathan Small

Tens of millions of dollars are missing; criminal investigations are underway. Officials at the State Department of Health, it seems, misspent funds and misled the public about it for at least six years. Some of the money came from the federal government meaning those involved could face federal charges, and state taxpayers might have to pay that money back.

What happened? Only by answering that question can we make such scandals less likely in the future. The multiple investigations are in their initial stages, but three lessons already stand out.

First, executive leadership matters in state government. Even in positions of power, the easy path is often “go along to get along” or “keep your head down.” Self-serving politicians want to protect their political capital, but leaders know such capital is only worth having – and only grows – if you use it.

The governor and her top advisers claim they knew nothing about problems at the Department of Health until six years of mismanagement put the agency on the brink of collapse. This may be true, but then where were they? No doubt it was easier to let agency leaders do their thing, and no feathers got ruffled by taking their word for it year after year.

The problem isn’t just weak leadership. The second lesson is that Oklahoma’s executive branch structure actually produces weakness and confusion. The governor and her staff point to the nine-member Board of Health as the department’s direct governing authority. None of them are elected, and almost none of them are even known to the public. This structure makes it easy to pass the buck.

Oklahoma needs constitutional reform that makes the buck stop with the governor. The state’s top elected official should appoint agency directors who report to her and can be fired by her. That way, management (or mismanagement) would be unambiguously the governor’s responsibility.

The final lesson relates to the danger of federal funds flowing through state agencies and the need for greater transparency. The money looks deceptively free, inviting abuses. After all, the Legislature doesn’t have to raise it through taxes. For that matter, about a quarter of all federal funds are borrowed (something that would be illegal for state government to do on its own). The Legislature passed a bill to increase transparency for these funds, but it was vetoed by Gov. Fallin.

When these scandals come to light, it damages the people’s trust in government. It’s time to restructure our state government for more accountability instead of passing the buck.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).

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