The Promise and Perils of ‘Moving the Boxes’

Reorganizing a government's agencies and services -- whether consolidating them or breaking them up -- isn't easy. There are some important things to keep in mind.
February 21, 2017
Feather O'Connor Houstoun
By Feather O'Connor Houstoun  |  Contributor
A senior adviser to the Wyncote Foundation

As part of a cost-cutting budget designed to avoid broad new taxes but protect service levels, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf recently proposed combining four state departments -- Human Services, Health, Drug and Alcohol, and Aging -- into one consolidated agency. In effect, the proposal would rewind reorganizations spanning decades that provided separate cabinet-level leadership to constituencies arguing that separation would best represent their specialized needs.

As a longtime public administrator, including a stint as Pennsylvania's secretary of public welfare in the 1990s, I've had my hand in a number of these reorganizations that critics often label as exercises in "moving the boxes." I've been involved in some that worked reasonably well and some that didn't. I've learned a few things, and I've heard all the arguments.

The consolidationists point out that at the local level, program recipients and local administrators need juggling skills to manage numerous program streams. "As far as I can tell right now," one service provider commented on Wolf's proposal, "consolidation is good. Having silos at that level of government isn't necessarily a good thing. If it results in efficiency and better services for people, then I think it would be a good thing."

The separatists maintain that the Pennsylvania behemoth from which they escaped was too bureaucratic, too occupied with major program issues to give nuanced attention to their needs, and too identified with less-popular programs, such as public assistance, to gain public support for their more sympathetic causes.

Some years ago, I visited an agency that had been formed by the merger of departments of community affairs and economic development. Thinking the consolidation might have yielded some synergy that boosted urban centers' economic-development efforts, I asked around. "Nothing's changed," said one staff person, happily. "Nothing's changed," observed a small-town mayor, with frustration.

Whether a reorganization accomplishes anything requires determined managers with vision and persistence. But that's not all. Here are a few observations about how to optimize the chances that something good comes out of the other side:

• Be clear about distinctions among advocacy, program administration, oversight and licensing. All have roles, but the intersections can be landmines.

• Don't skip the basics because they seem, well, obvious: Map program streams down to the recipient level, and identify and understand separate and overlapping constituencies. Free-standing drug and alcohol programs, for example, generally reach people without underlying mental-health issues. But not exclusively. A majority of mental-health patients have self-medicated with drugs, alcohol or both.

• Respect and accommodate voices presenting special concerns. Long-term care, for instance, spans aging as well as working-age adults. Their differences can become acute around institutional-care options as well as policies governing guardianship and self-determination.

• Never underestimate the extent to which stakeholders believe their situations are unique. Toward the end of my term as Pennsylvania's public-welfare secretary, we invited disability advocates in to suggest that they work together on an agenda of priorities for the new gubernatorial administration. The participants represented clients with many different physical and cognitive disabilities, each their own interest group and often with their own programs and budget lines. It took three meetings for them to begin to forge a strong platform that set budget and policy goals transcending their individual areas of interest. As a group they eventually spoke with a strong and unignorable voice in key issues.

• Keep the receiving end of the pipeline in clear view. It can be eye-opening. Box-moving may completely miss the obligation of top-line administrators to rationalize regulations and program requirements to ease the administrative burden of front-line program officials. If that isn't attended to, local administrators will have to struggle with the tangle of conflicting and competing rules.

• With that point in mind, turn to program innovators at the local level as guides to what might work. Twenty years ago in Pennsylvania's Allegheny County, for example, Mark Cherna integrated many of the programs that are now proposed to be combined. "We were able to make tremendous inroads in terms of helping people," he says, "because many of the people we serve are in more than one system."

Finally, remember that culture eats structure for lunch. Seeing, confronting and managing cultural differences may in the end be the biggest single skill for successful box-moving.