Governor Snyder's 'River of Opportunity' a chance for change

tom_watkins.jpgGovernor Snyder is to be commended for calling on us all to put “people over programs” in his “River of Opportunity” State of the State address. The Governor launched his second term, calling for “revolutionizing how government operates” to move all Michiganders into the mainstream “river of opportunity” where he says most residents already swim.
Tear Down These Walls
I have spent my entire life moving in and out of government, nonprofit and private sector jobs, including the leadership of two major departments of state government: Mental Mental and Education under Governors Blanchard, Engler and Granholm.  I served as a management consultant with a major CPA firm and lead a private business organization, the Economic Council of Palm Beach County, Florida. In each of these roles, with insider knowledge, I was often stymied by the years upon years of fragmented, siloed, layered programs that had become as stratified and hardened as sedimentary rock. It is a dream come true to witness Governor Snyder challenge us all to break down bureaucratic walls and put people and their holistic needs first.
To be clear, Governor Snyder’s call is as big and bold as it is revolutionary. He has set the vision and has spelled out a path for all should follow.
From The Beginning
I began my career in 1975 with a freshly minted degree from Michigan State University in Criminal Justice,  with an emphasis on juvenile justice. I had the opportunity to help create an emergency shelter for runway youth, that sadly remains, is still needed and in operation to this day.  Counterpoint Runaway Shelter, a program of Starfish Human Services, is in Inkster Michigan. Shortly after our doors opened I ran into bureaucratic rules that put programs ahead of people.
Three youth showed up at the shelter. It turned out that a mother was arrested and sent to jail. The father was a no show dad, long absent from the kid’s life. Somehow, when mom went to jail, no one caught the kids in our shredded social safety net. The oldest of the 3 kept the family together, feeding and sheltering them until the rent came due and they were evicted. Under the program rules on age appropriateness, I was supposed to separate the family, scattering them to separate “programs.”
“Absurd” I thought then, to break up a family in order to help them, Reminded me of that Vietnam era quote: ” We had to destroy the village in order to -save it.”
The statute of limitation clearly had passed. I broke the rules to do what made sense — keeping the family together until the mother was released from jail and we could reunite and wrap services around the intact family to support them. I have been a common sense rule breaker ever since.
Putting People First
As State Superintendent, I came to understand that when a teacher, a principal, superintendent, and school board were aligned around TLC– Teaching, Learning and Children – not PCPA– Power, Control, Politics and Adults – good things happen for kids. Sadly, like some  in health and human service community, this alignment is sadly not always there.
Governor Snyder is challenging us all to get our priorities straight and align our resources around people, not programs. Act like a two-year-old and challenge old assumptions. Ask, “WHY”. Why do we do things that don’t make sense to serve people and maximize taxpayers resources?
The Governor has it right when he says, “”This is truly an opportunity to revolutionize how we operate and realize we work for real people,”  “They deserve results. They don’t deserve to be a number in 15 different programs.” Amen!
Bright and Capable Leadership
There are two leaders in their own right that will help navigate the  changes, along with others, through the submerged obstructions that are in any river of change: Nick Lyon, Director of the Michigan Department of Community Health, and Interim Director of the Michigan Department of Human Services  and John Walsh, the governor’s Strategy Director. Both are honorable and capable leaders.
Former State Representative John Walsh spells out that the governor wants to better coordinate services and focus on helping residents return to the “mainstream” as soon as possible.
Nick Lyon views the vision as a chance to “achieve more flexibility to become more person-centric, reforming how we interface with our customers and making the service delivery system more focused on the customer’s needs in resourceful ways.”
Who can argue with these goals?
From The Beginning
Snyder began his call to to reimagine government during his first campaign for office and has yet to slow down.  A big change will come with the pending merger of the state’s Department of Community Health and the Department of Human Services. This mega department will be charged with serving some of the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
Some have called to resist the changes and vision layed out by Gov Snyder. Doing so is not my nature. When I see an opening to enhance and improve services, knock down bureaucratic barriers and a call to put people first, count me in!
Become Sails – Not Anchors!
The health and human services community should take up this challenge to do better by the people we serve. Be sails, not anchors for fresh ideas. With input from the local level, we can go upstream of change that leads to progress.
If you drill holes in a boat full of the ideas articulated by Governor Snyder around the theme “River of Opportunity”, you are likely to sink us all.
Certainly there will be challenges. The boat of change may become temporarily grounded in unexpected sandbars and even purposely forced to take on water by the very protectors of the status quo. But the vision is worthy of following.
I, for one, expect to be joined by my colleagues across the state in collaborating and partnering with the Snyder administration in working through the challenges to make this perhaps once in a lifetime opportunity work.
One challenge is always resources. Pending budget cuts will make change difficult, but NOT impossible.
Together, we are truly better. Let’s embrace the vision and work harder and smarter to make it work for all our fellow citizens.
Let’s begin by adopting the Governor’s optimistic tone of “Relentless positive action,” and pursue this idea with dogged determination.
Tom Watkins is a former state mental health director and state superintendent of schools. He is the president and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority  He can be reached at:  or follow on twitter tdwatkins88

About Post Author

From the Web

Skip to content