Mega-agency is a bad idea

This commentary originally appeared in the Austin American-Statesman.

It’s time for the Texas Legislature to fully let go of the idea of consolidating all or some of the state’s health and human services agencies into one mega-agency this session.

As concerns about the proposal have mounted in recent months, legislators have responded by first promising to delay some of the consolidation — and then by peeling two agencies out of the initial rollout.

But after Gov. Greg Abbott’s handpicked Health and Human Services Strike Force announced its opposition to the proposal, it should be clear that creating a somewhat smaller mega-agency, or creating it on a slower timeline, is still problematic.

The governor created the Strike Force to review agency procedures after contracting problems were splashed across the front pages of Texas newspapers. In its recent report, the group says it will likely be more difficult to clean up the contracting process if the mega-agency proposal moves forward.

In addition to undermining reforms to the contracting process, consolidation also would hurt the "primary missions” of investigating child abuse, providing health services to people with disabilities, and other basic functions that Texans rely on.

Texas children and families can’t afford a disruption in these services while agency staffers worry about administrative reorganization. What they do want, and what all Texas taxpayers want, is more efficiency in our state agencies. The Sunset Commission, which proposed the mega-agency plan, also offered smart suggestions for improving efficiency, such as cross-agency teams to smooth coordination and communication.

The Strike Force report notes that creation of a mega-agency would create a new series of inefficiencies: A "single large bureaucracy may make HHS programs even less accessible and efficient than the current structure, even with its flaws.”

The Strike Force paints a picture of a bottleneck at the top of the proposed mega-agency as more decisions rely on the executive commissioner, who is currently under fire for his handling of contracts and other matters: "Full consolidation would create enormous potential problems with span of control and oversight for the executive commissioner …

"Without a clear delegation of authority for various functions — essentially what the current structure creates with five separate agencies — the potential for a massive logjam of competing priorities at the top of the organization is significant if not inevitable.”

As the Strike Force explains:

"Would, for example, a public health division within HHSC move as nimbly to confront a disease outbreak as the Department of Health Services did during the recent Ebola scare? Would the director of a family protective services division have the latitude needed to do his or her job without involving a chain of bureaucracy ultimately involving the executive commissioner? Could the agency even attract the talent needed to run these functions effectively if their leaders would no longer be commissioners, but division directors within a large agency?”

The leaders and staff at our state health and human services agencies should spend the next five years improving efficiency and services, not redrawing the organizational chart, waiting for a single commissioner to approve every decision, and forcing everyone to use the same letterhead.

Eileen Garcia is CEO of Texans Care for Children.