|Speaker Kris Steele|
OKLAHOMA CITY – House Speaker Kris Steele and a bipartisan group of five representatives today unveiled the first steps of a strategy to reform the Oklahoma Department of Human Services.
The House’s aggressive, four-pronged strategy is designed to improve DHS through significant study of and potential reforms to governance structure, agency structure, personnel policy and resource allocation. The plan is in response to a shared desire between House members, agency officials and other stakeholders to improve delivery of services by DHS, particularly for children in state custody.
“Today we begin working together to find a better way,” said Steele, R-Shawnee. “The Legislature has made incremental DHS reforms over the years, but more improvements are needed. The comprehensive reform we seek is only achievable if we all truly cooperate and work toward a common goal. It won’t be easy, but what we’re saying today is we’re going to buckle down and get there together.”
Steele has asked a bipartisan group of five representatives to engage in a strategic review of DHS to develop policy to consider next legislative session.
Governor Mary Fallin released a statement today after the announcement.
“When I appointed Brad Yarbrough and Wes Lane to the DHS commission, I asked them to pursue reforms that would allow the agency to better protect our children and increase accountability, transparency and efficiency,” Fallin said. “The goals outlined today by Speaker Steele, a bipartisan group of legislators, and agency officials is the logical next step in that process.”
Leading the group will be Rep. Jason Nelson, R-Oklahoma City, who has spent this summer and past years reviewing DHS to look for potential reforms. Other members of the group are Reps. Pam Peterson, R-Tulsa, Pat Ownbey, R-Ardmore, Rebecca Hamilton, D-Oklahoma City, and Wade Rousselot, D-Okay. All members of the group have certain areas of expertise in human services.
“Make no mistake: This is no typical legislative committee. There will be no sitting in hearings making motions and watching PowerPoints all day,” Nelson said. “DHS faces serious challenges that necessitate us getting out of the Capitol and into the field.”
The group will operate in a unique manner, with much of its work occurring in small meetings with DHS workers in the field, where the group will observe how policies are implemented and analyze organizational strengths and needs. The group will also meet with other agency officials and leaders, DHS commissioners and other stakeholders.
“The Legislature already has a wealth of knowledge about this agency, so there is no need to duplicate what we’ve already done. Instead, we’re taking a somewhat outside-the-box approach,” Nelson said. “I’m confident this is exactly the type of approach needed in order to achieve real reforms that ensure DHS delivers the results Oklahomans expect. Our sense of urgency could not be any higher.”
The group’s meetings with workers will be private to allow for candid conversation and disclosure of sensitive information. The group will also engage in an in-depth study of the agency’s structure and resource allocation to determine if better results could be achieved through reorganization and reprioritizing resources. A public report on the group’s findings will be presented during a public meeting sometime next year.
Steele said DHS reform will be a policy priority in the House next session.
“My expectation is one I believe most Oklahomans share, and that is to do whatever it takes to produce serious improvement at DHS,” Steele said.
Officials at DHS – the largest agency in state government – pledged to give the group the access it needs to the agency in order to do its work.
“We thank Speaker Steele and the House for their willingness to work together to find solutions and look forward to assisting in every way possible,” DHS Director Howard Hendrick said. “This process will do a lot of good and I’m glad to be part of it.”
DHS commissioners also expressed support for the group’s plans.
“We are fully committed to building a better DHS for the 21st century and appreciate the opportunity to collaborate with Speaker Steele and all legislators in this process,” said incoming Oklahoma Commission for Human Services Chairman Brad Yarbrough. “It won’t be easy, but the best work never is. We stand ready for the challenge.”
The Oklahoma Public Employees Association also expressed support for the House plan.
“We appreciate these representatives for their willingness to get out of the Capitol to spend time with the workers who are on the ground protecting Oklahoma’s children,” said OPEA Executive Director Sterling Zearley. “The front line employees’ unique perspective and their experience will be valuable in this critical process.”
Rep. Ron Peters, chairman of the House Appropriations and Budget Subcommittee on Human Services, said he is appreciative of the work the group plans to do.
“I am thrilled to see my colleagues and DHS working together on solutions. It’s the right thing to do and I commend them for it,” said Peters, R-Tulsa. “I stand ready to assist in any way.”
“As a state, we must all work together to prevent the abuse and neglect of our most vulnerable citizens,” Fallin said. That’s especially true when it comes to child abuse and the heart-breaking deaths of children in state custody. We have, unfortunately, seen too many instances of both recently, and the current results are unacceptable. Today’s announcement puts us on a path to reform our systems of child welfare and better protect vulnerable Oklahomans.”