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After a promising start at DHS, Minnesota’s largest state agency,there’s heavy lifting ahead

After smart fixes at human-services agency, major reforms merit consideration.

Minnesota’s new Department of Human Services Commissioner Jodi Harpstead came to her 90-day legislative check-in on Monday with charts, data and a clear, crisp overview of the practical changes she’s made and what fixes still lie ahead.

But the moment that most inspired confidence about Harpstead’s leadership was her handling of a tense exchange with Rep. Barb Haley, R-Red Wing. Haley’s lengthy part-statement, part-question reflected Minnesotans’ frustration with a state agency that’s made news for all the wrong reasons for most of 2019: overpayments, leadership churn and accusations of whistleblower retaliation.

These problems predate Harpstead, who took over in September. But Haley wanted to know why the public should believe that yet another leadership change will lead to the reforms the agency so clearly needs. Harpstead’s quiet but powerful response: that she has to earn that trust, and that she intends to do so through results. “The only way to build trust is to be trustworthy,” she said.

Minnesotans should hold Harpstead to her word in the months and years ahead. But she’s earned the benefit of the doubt after a solid first three months in a job that many believe is the most challenging in state government. DHS is the state’s largest agency and has an annual budget of $17.5 billion. Among its sprawling responsibilities: the state’s sex offender treatment program and administering public medical assistance programs.

Harpstead is a former Medtronic executive who led Lutheran Social Service of Minnesota before Gov. Tim Walz tapped her to clean up DHS. In her first appearance before the state House on Monday and during an interview with an editorial writer on Wednesday, she outlined the pragmatic fixes she has put in place. They include stronger financial controls and oversight, implementing quality-improvement processes frequently used in the private sector, bolstering communications with those served by the agency, and bringing in new leadership to strengthen struggling divisions.

These nuts-and-bolts changes aren’t glamorous work, but they reflect well on Harpstead’s leadership. This is what an experienced manager would and should be doing — taking a thorough, methodical approach to identifying problems and quickly making operational improvements.

Harpstead has also smartly sought guidance from respected Minnesota leaders. She has formed an independent advisory council and recruited Bill George, Medtronic’s former CEO, to serve on it. While some have questioned the need for the panel, it’s smart to seek out quality feedback.

Monday’s hearing fell short of addressing all concerns about the agency’s operations. There are still unsettled questions about whether adequate improvements are underway in one especially troubled program — child care assistance. The Star Tribune Editorial Board would also like a deeper evaluation of whistleblower policies to see if improvements are necessary.

But it’s also time for lawmakers and the governor to think about broader reforms. After months of hearings and controversy, it’s time to formally consider splitting DHS into smaller agencies. A reasonable first step: hiring outside expertise to outline benefits and drawbacks. A recent commentary on these pages raised concerns about the unique role counties play in delivering human services. A report on restructuring could also address this.

Harpstead isn’t the only one with heavy lifting ahead. While the new commissioner is making immediate operational fixes, Walz and legislators need to move forward with a deep, expert look at DHS’ structure. At the core of the agency’s mission are vital services to the poor, disabled and elderly. Ensuring the state can deliver these supports efficiently for decades to come is one of current policymakers’ most important responsibilities.

— Minneapolis Star Tribune

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