Health & Human Services

Blunt Instrument

Lillian Koller likes to cut through red tape--even if that means bending a few rules of courtesy.
by | September 2005

Lillian Koller has always believed in full disclosure. She has never shrunk from telling people what she thinks, even if they haven't always wanted to hear it. To those who know her, it was no surprise when she took over a top position in child welfare in Hawaii and immediately launched a crusade against confidentiality requirements she considered irksome.

She did that a couple of years ago, not long after she had been named secretary of human services by Republican Governor Linda Lingle. A baby taken by the state had died in foster care and Koller found herself hemmed in by strict rules governing what she could tell the child's parents, the news media and others. "I don't like being gagged," she explained.

So she changed the rules, essentially by administrative fiat--and without running the changes by either the legislature or many of her staff. This has occasioned no small tumult among child welfare workers and others in Hawaii, who believe either that Koller has introduced a welcome breath of sanity or that she has gone way overboard in pushing her point of view. "There is great controversy over how much information you disclose about families--we have a small state, and it's not clear how much information that would not necessarily help other siblings should be disclosed," says Suzanne Chun Oakland, a Democratic state senator whose committee oversees Koller's department. "On the other hand, plenty of people can cite cases that could have been better managed if there had been more information available."

The flip side of Koller's take-no-prisoners approach, as Chun Oakland puts it, is that "while she speaks quite a bit, I'm not sure that she listens." This has been a particular point of contention with the legislature, where the money committees cut positions from the human services department and restricted Koller's discretion to move federal funds around after deciding that she had not given them information they needed in putting together her budget. "I think Lillian has a good heart and wants to do a good job," says Democratic state Senator Rosalyn Baker, "but is so focused on the mission that, to her, legislators asking questions may be more of an irritant than a help. If Lillian would just slow down and answer questions directly and then listen to the feedback she's given, I think she'd get along a lot better with folks."

Koller, a native of Toronto, studied and practiced law in California before moving to Hawaii, where she ran the Maui County drug court. Both there and at the state level, she has made a specialty of cutting through what she saw as bureaucratic niceties. She has changed procedures in the state's child health insurance program to make it harder for kids to fall out of the system; she has reshaped the state's incentives to encourage welfare recipients to find work; and she has won plaudits from welfare advocates for bringing aged and disabled Medicaid recipients into the managed care system. "If she and her staff identify a need," says Baker, "she's not averse to trying to do something rather than say, 'Oh, well, we have to wait for permission first.'"

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Rob Gurwitt  |  Former Correspondent
robg@valley.net

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