All governors have lots of people who answer to them. Often, too many. When Asa Hutchinson took over as governor in Arkansas in 2015, he soon realized he had more departments than he could effectively oversee. He’s managed to slice that number substantially, without laying anyone off.
This year, the legislature approved a bill promoted by the governor to simplify the bureaucracy by dropping the number of cabinet agencies from an unmanageable 42 down to just 15. No programs were eliminated or functions canceled. It was an exercise in trying to get the flow chart flowing. “When the organizational structure is so discombobulated,” says state Rep. Andy Davis,“the governor cannot effectively reach into those agencies and get thousands of employees going where he wants them to go.”
In addition to the cabinet-level departments, Arkansas had more than 200 smaller agencies, boards and commissions. Hutchinson started doing mergers of a few of those almost as soon as he took office in 2015. Reorganizing the entire government required more work. Hutchinson knew this from experience. He served as an original undersecretary at the federal Department of Homeland Security when it was created after the 2001 terrorist attacks, combining 22 separate agencies into a sometimes-unwieldy bureaucracy.
Hutchinson took his time in Arkansas, creating an advisory board that spent countless hours talking with agency directors about what they did and which other agencies they most often interacted with. The governor surveyed legislators and held public forums around the state. He also made sure that state employees had a seat at the table while the new structure was being designed. “Right now, communication just doesn’t reach all these silos,” says John Bridges, executive director of the Arkansas State Employees Association, which supported the effort.
Although the plan was designed over a period of years, it had to be implemented in a hurry. Hutchinson signed the bill in April, putting the new structure in place by July 1. Instead of separate departments overseeing banking, insurance, workforce training and economic development, for instance, all those functions will now be housed within a new Department of Commerce.
No doubt there will be bumps along the way. There always are. Arkansas has experienced these in the past. In 2005, Gov. Mike Huckabee merged the departments of Health and Human Services. His successor, Mike Beebe, split them back apart just two years later, determining that the state’s two largest departments were simply too massive to be run as a single entity. (They’re still separate under the Hutchinson plan.) Way back in 1971, Gov. Dale Bumpers merged 60 agencies into 13 cabinet departments, but in the years that followed, their numbers bloated back up. Every program had a champion and, it seemed, supporters who believed its mission could be best accomplished independently.
If there’s reason to be skeptical about whether the current effort will make a permanent difference, Hutchinson has taken pains to ensure that streamlining will be an ongoing mission. Arkansas now has a Department of Transformation and Shared Services. It will support every other department by managing personnel, buildings, procurement and technology. The “transformation” part comes from its other mission, which is to be constantly looking for ways to make things more efficient across the whole of state government.
Combining agencies and functions is always harder in reality than on paper. Still, at least Hutchinson can now convene cabinet meetings where everyone can find a seat. “It was just really not a good administrative structure,” says Amy Fecher, who’s overseen the reorganization for the governor. “Commissions and agencies were not given really any direct supervision, or the support to do the work.”