Gov. Snyder goes big, bold in reimagining government programs

Gov. Rick Snyder is not a guy with a lot of rhetorical flourishes. More often than not, his speeches sound like a list of topics, often with metrics thrown in for light relief.

So when he stands at the podium – as he did in last week’s State of the State speech – and starts talking about “revolutionizing how government operates” and saying “this is the time for the big vision,” you shake your head and wonder if you’re watching the wrong TV channel.

But that’s what happened when Gov. Snyder proposed “the River of Opportunity” to help people whose family has collapsed, who are poor, who don’t have skills, or who are sick or have a disability. “They need government support and nonprofit support.”

But the governor argued that if you look back over the past 80 years, you see that “we have added prescriptive program after prescriptive program.” In Michigan, we have 145 government programs already: 35 in health care, 40 in work force, 70 in child services. “What we have done is sliced and diced people into programs. We have moved away from treating them as real people.”

So Snyder wants to restructure government to get rid of the multiple silos that infest the landscape of government programs. He plans an executive order that will merge the Department of Community Health and the Department of Human Services “so we can be (do) much more one-stop shopping, really human focused, people focused.”

Well, well! Who would have thunk it? A big vision metaphor, the River of Opportunity. Merging two big departments of state government. Talking about centering government on people, rather than on separate jurisdictions.

This is not an entirely new approach. Critics of the way government works have been complaining for years that the very way government activity is denominated – by the program – is at the heart of what’s wrong with the way government works.

How bureaucracy builds

Here’s how a government program is created. Somewhere, whether Washington or Lansing, somebody introduces a bill to do something. Once passed, that bill authorizes money to be spent by a “responsible” government agency which is thereby given jurisdiction for the activity just funded. And so is created a silo government activity that inflicts money and services on defined target groups and sets up a turfed silo of money and jurisdiction that is jealously guarded by bureaucrats inside the silo.

That’s a program. People are no longer treated as whole people; instead, they are “clients”, authorized to receive specific defined “services” according to their specific needs and demographic and juridical status. And that’s a recipe for disconnected programs, fragmented service delivery, narrow and often outdated metrics measuring outcomes, and calcified programs that don’t adapt to changing circumstances.

There’s a great description of disconnected programs written by Larry Good, chairman and founder of the Corporation for a Skilled Workforce: “We have programs for trade impacted workers, veterans, those interested in specific career field, older workers, youth, Native Americans, those on welfare, those on public housing, those in blighted areas, and those with low basic skills. Each program has its own rules and its own outcome measures, political constituency and advocacy groups.”

I remember when I was the chair of the Job Training Coordinating Council that oversaw job training in Michigan during the 1980’s. Michigan was experienced a big recession, and there were fervent calls from all sides for more money to be spent on job training. I demanded an inventory of job training programs operating in Michigan. Turns out we had 70-odd such programs operating in Michigan, with administrative responsibility spread among nine separate departments of state government. We didn’t have a money problem; we had a management program.

So in his speech Gov. Snyder is tackling a big, historic problem lurking at the core of popular and political discontent with the way government works. He’s doing it in an important way that is consistent with an enormous body of sharp criticism, keen analysis and far-reaching suggestions for improvements in the ways government works that go back more than 40 years.

Cynics will, of course, abound. One commented during the governor’s speech: “Well, I suppose if you don’t have anything particularly worthwhile to propose, you might as well come out for re-jiggering the structure of government.”

Fair enough. But Gov. Snyder is pushing into an absolutely core issue, and he’s going at it in absolutely the right way. He deserves praise for his “big vision” and for time and patience in making it work.

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Tue, 01/27/2015 - 7:45am
He plans an executive order that will merge the Department of Community Health and the Department of Human Services “so we can be (do) much more one-stop shopping, really human focused, people focused I know someone who is very concerned they will lose their job in this process, this action is rumored to be part of dealing with the projected budget shortfall that has been in the news lately.
Marina Whitman
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 9:42am
you bet!
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 9:54am
" a big, historic problem lurking at the core of popular and political discontent with the way government works" more little diversion from the real problem of increasing taxes on seniors to subsidize big business...Nice try Phil...but no cigar
sam melvin
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 10:05am
well, I hope on the way to lesser government HE finds the Money for the Rod & bridge Fund that in 1990 was $ 328 Millon and then with GOV. Engler in 2001 went to $ 1,5 BILLON for the ROADS..Also the $ 20 Billon in the MCCA FUND that will give each Michiganeder over 18 years a $ 3600.REFUND, YES that will bring live back to the citizen of Michigan THE Home HEATING CREDIT and the CUTS in FOODSTAMPS/Snapfor our senior and Veterans(some do not qualify for the program they only get $ 400 a months). What about the money spend on Ann ARBOR and on Sparks EAST? DTE wants a raise again ,seams like every 6-9 months the bill from DTe goes up then down ,then up again for resident?WHY? Michigan has the Higest rate and also the Highest rate in car insurance kingly LOWER IT so more people move/work i Michigan. Also in 2009 MDOT advertised "you can take the train from Ann Arbor ,stop in Ypsilanti, to the Thanksgiving parade..BU we are in 2015 now and no train in site. yes the Gov. has a lot on is plate..lets hope for the best in "people"time 2X
Martha Toth
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 10:07am
I think you have a good point, Phil. It is the nature of bureaucracies to proliferate while guarding their own turf, so that ultimate aims sink on the priority list. This kind of reorganization, if he can pull it off as intended, has great potential to improve services AND efficiency, to the benefit of recipients, taxpayers, and our overall quality of life. Concern for particular jobs that may be in jeopardy is exactly the wrong focus, since government is not and should not be seen as an employment agency. It is a service industry, really, and better service is always a positive. This is precisely the kind of sensible but thoroughly unglamorous management improvement that I believe voters were looking for from our "tough nerd." The flurry of vetoes of lame-duck legislation show that he is developing the "tough" part of his persona, at last. He'll need it, with the new crowd in Lansing.
Russell Sexton
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 12:46pm
Well said Ms. Toth!
sam melvin
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 10:13am
Hopefully then STATes Offices and building won't be moved again ..the Michigan Works has remodel there offices for two years and then Moved to a different Location,HOW MUCH MONEY has that cost ?
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 1:05pm
Michigan Works! is not a State Agency. They are a local governed board which receives State and Federal Grants/Allocations to operate the Workforce Programs and the One-Stop Service Centers/America's Job Centers in Michigan. They are not State employees.
Barry Visel
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 10:18am
Sounds like a great idea to me. Snyder should reach out to people on the recieving end of these services for ideas to improve. Now we need to get our Federal reps to tackle all those job training categories...having served on two workforce development boards, I was very frustrated with the administrative waste.
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 10:19am
Doing more with less is a mantra for budget cutters, however the "more" hardly ever works out in the quality of what comes out at the grass roots level.
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 1:05pm
A step in the right direction for sure. I'm betting on this horse
Tue, 01/27/2015 - 6:43pm
Merging the departments sounds good in theory, I would love to see it work. But experience tells us that the merger will just be a tool for cutting budgets and services for the most needy. When will he realize people are people not line items on a budget sheet?
Dick b
Thu, 01/29/2015 - 4:57pm
Finally doing what I expected gov to do long before. With all the overlaps there will be some jobs lost, but that leaves more money and "space" for better service and pay. Use existing equipment and offices. Upgrade computer skills and equipment for all. The biggest employer in the state is government, so it be as efficient as a good business. Go gov.
Rik R
Sun, 02/01/2015 - 2:56pm
Great concept! Follow-through will be an uphill battle (especially from the very Bureaucracy that mergers tend to eliminate)... The great thing about merging services, besides minimizing--or, better, eliminating--costly Bureaucracy, is that it allows for serving the 'whole' person; taking into account that most issues are not 'singular' in cause; recognizing that if we are to ever TRULY help the individual, we cannot treat their problems as individual. You have my support, Governor Snyder!
Laura Bates
Sun, 02/01/2015 - 3:43pm
Nice try, but as I have learned from years of evaluating state education, health and human services programs, most of the money for these programs is federal money that comes with preexisting eligibility and outcome requirements. The idea that the state puts significant money into these programs is a myth; in fact the state doesn't even fund many of the people who administer these programs in the departments. So, the best the state can do is try to better coordinate the programs so they seem easier to access for the consumers.
John Nash
Mon, 02/02/2015 - 10:25am
Thanks Phil, I always appreciate the fact that you do what you say - you are out to help Michigan, not Republicans, not democrats or any other special interest group but to listen to and help real Michigan people. I agree with you. Gov. Snyder sees a very definite problem and wants to address it. Change is always hard, and too many are more concerned about their jobs and/or other personal concerns than what will solve the problems. I hope our Governor is saying with the same number of employees we can do a much better job. I would hope those doing the job say this approach will help resolve a problem we have been facing for many, many years. I personally know a high ranking DSS official who finally retired early because he found the current Michigan system so frustrating.
Mon, 02/02/2015 - 12:09pm
I, as many of my colleagues, have witnessed the same old solutions, with new titles, to address ongoing problems to address the needs of the chronically unemployed, the unemployed and the underemployed. Unfortunately, many miss the mark. Gov. Snyder's approach is long over due.