Direct appointments, direct accountability

Direct appointments, direct accountability

Column by Fred Morgan, President and CEO of the State Chamber, published in The Oklahoman on May 2, 2018

A few weeks ago, The Oklahoman laid out an excellent, detailed synopsis of the financial fiasco at the state Department of Health. This piece, along with the other articles published on the matter, unravel a confusing timeline and countless excuses leading up to the discovery of mismanagement back in October. The Oklahoman article portrayed an agency in disarray and negligent in its duty to protect taxpayer money. A revealing indictment of this characterization comes in the form of a quote from Debroah Nichols, the agency's former chief operating officer. “In my opinion, the folks leading this agency were not villains. The problem is they're really bad business people.”

In my more than two decades of experience with state government, I have seen little evidence of corruption. But waste, inefficiency and a lack of accountability are rampant. The State Chamber has long advocated that government agencies adopt business practices for a simple reason: efficiency and accountability. While some government agencies and programs are often slow-moving and lack meaningful metrics to assess their success, every business lives or dies based on the efficiency of their operations and the soundness of their strategic decisions.

A year ago, the State Chamber embarked on a mission to pull Oklahoma up from the bottom of some important national rankings. OK2030, a strategic vision plan for the state, details specific recommendations, including reforms to increase efficiencies and accountability in government. Among those recommendations is granting the power of direct appointment of agency heads to the governor. Currently, directors of massive state agencies are appointed by the agency boards. The problem is that agency boards aren't accountable to the people, they aren't accountable to the Legislature and they aren't accountable to the governor.

When accountability is absent, waste and inefficiency are likely. This brings us back to Nichols' insight on the Health Department scandal — bureaucratic boards can foster the kind of collective groupthink that allowed the financial mismanagement at the agency to go unnoticed for years. Structural change is needed to prevent another financial scandal and restore people's faith in our state government.

Oklahoma, historically, has been a populist state and wary of centralized government. This is evidenced in the way our government is set up and in the manner in which our constitution is written. But times have changed. Accountability and effective use of taxpayers' dollars are not just goals, but necessities. Oklahoma is one of only five states not to involve the state's chief executive during the selection of the state's health agency director.

Resistance to change is somewhat understandable. Resistance to efficiency and accountability is not. Oklahoma government is in desperate need of greater oversight to ensure we are not marred by another agency scandal and we continue to serve our taxpayers in the most competent manner possible. We are pleased and encouraged that House Bill 3036 is headed to the governor's desk and look forward to the increased accountability this measure will bring to Oklahoma government.

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