The most demanding job in state government is running the Agency of Human Services, which normally means it’s a one-time experience. Agreeing to serve in the position twice is usually a sign of being unemployable, or being a glutton for punishment.
Gov. Phil Scott last week named Mike Smith as his new secretary of the Agency of Human Services. Mr. Smith served in the same position in the Jim Douglas administration, and he takes over from his predecessor Al Gobeille. [He would be listed in the “glutton for punishment” category.]
It’s the largest agency in state government with well over a billion dollar a year budget. The agency has its fingers in almost everything we do, and how could it not when its primary mission is to “improve the health and well-being of Vermonters.” What doesn’t affect our health and well-being at one level or another?
The good news is that he already knows the ropes. Even better is that he knows how the office works and how it fits with the governor’s objectives. And, finally, he’s taking over an agency that’s been well run, meaning he doesn’t have to spend any time righting something that’s gone awry.
That will be a new twist for Mr. Smith, whose reputation is largely based on being the “fix-it” person. It will also be a new challenge.
His experience, his familiarity with the job, and the respect he has from the governor and staff should also create the space necessary to be innovative and to break the inertia so inherent in state bureaucracies.
It’s not a caretaker’s position. It should not be seen as a politically safe position. There are too many critically important challenges that need to be addressed in creative and aggressive manners.
There is the issue of corrections and how criminal justice causes should be addressed. There is the need to keep the state’s health care payment reform efforts on track. There is mental health, opioid abuse, Medicare and primary care. There is the dramatic need to address the statewide differences in how the Department for Children and Families’ responsibilities are handled. There are the unmet needs of early childhood. And education. And on and on.
Whoever leads the agency is the person responsible for what happens within the agency; just like the CEO of a company bears responsibility for whatever happens within the company. The difference, however, is that the CEO of a company can be in place for a long time, the heads of state agencies are in place for short bursts of time since they serve at the governor’s pleasure.
That’s freeing in the respect that the Agency of Human Services has a seasoned staff in place. Mr. Smith doesn’t need to tinker with the machinery running the place. In fact, it would be counter-productive and injurious to staff morale for him to try.
As an agency secretary with prior experience he has the breadth and depth to address fundamental change. At this point in Mr. Smith’s career he should reject the notion of being a caretaker and revel in the opportunity to break the inertia that exists and to push the curiosity necessary to find new and better ways to do things.
And why not? To do otherwise is being the glutton for punishment.