The State Of Oklahoma’s Department Of Human Services

Thursday, September 3rd 2020, 10:26 pm
By: Dana Hertneky

Oklahoma's Department of Human Services has been under fire and under a microscope for nearly a decade as it tries to meet mandates of a federal lawsuit.

Last year Governor Stitt ousted the agency's long-time director and hired a government outsider: Justin Brown, a former corporate CEO.

The job Brown is doing impacts many Oklahomans. Between a fourth and a third of the state's total population are what Brown calls ‘customers’ of Oklahoma DHS.

The now Secretary of Human Services for the State has a background in investment banking and most recently was a CEO of a company that ran senior living and memory care centers. On April 1, he turned over leadership of that group.

"Well April 17th I got a phone call asking if I had any interest serving the state and I said thanks but no thinks I'm good," recalls Brown. 

Eventually, the Governor, who he had never met, encouraged him to take the job.

"At the end of that conversation I said if you say no to me I'm good,” Brown said. “But if you say yes to me and I say no to you I'll think about it every day for the rest of my life and I don't have anything like that and I'm not going to start now." 

We asked him if he has any regrets after a year. "None," he said.

The agency is also undergoing some major physical transformations to match what Secretary Brown calls a cultural one.

"I don't have an office, no," he said.

His office now been transformed into a large conference room. Throughout the building, collaboration spaces are replacing cubicles, making room for twice as many employees: from 500 to 1,000. The changes will allow the agency to close five buildings and save millions of dollars. Most employees are teleworking from home at least part time or with community partners.

"We have to build this culture of working together and physical space is important for that as well," he said.

Brown is betting on that culture to attract and keep employees.

In the past, multiple caseworkers told us they were overworked and unable to adequately investigate reports of child abuse.

Brown said he has already made progress in hiring by implementing a web-based system he used in the private sector.

"There are parts of the state in which they have been 50% historically in child welfare workers. They're 100% and they can't hire anymore because they don't have the space anymore," said Brown. "That's never existed in the past and allows for lower caseload numbers for our workforce."

The Co-neutrals charged with auditing the agency as part of the settlement of a federal lawsuit verifies those claims and others of success.

The report is the most positive to date, as the agency showing good faith efforts at meeting 29 of 30 goals and holding judgement on the last one.

Most notable is that for the first time, the agency has made improvements in finding foster homes for children with behavioral or mental health needs.

The attorney who headed up that lawsuit now said she is encouraged.

"I do think we see people there who have a lot of willingness and desire to get things done," said Marcia Lowry, the founder and executive director of A Better Childhood. "Which I think, frankly, is a change from the previous administration."

Lowry, however, is quick to point out that even though the agency is making showing efforts at meeting their goals, DHS still hasn't hit the targeted outcomes agreed upon in the settlement.

Brown, while obviously happy with the progress, said he believes his greatest accomplishment over the past year is putting the agency on a better path for the future.

"I think the biggest change that we've made is a development of a framework to organize all processes and systems that we're working on going forward,” Brown said.

As for the future goals of the agency, Brown said they have developed eight executive true north strategies.

Although he still clearly talks like a corporate CEO, Brown said he still believes he made the right decision leaving the private sector for what some argue is the hardest job in state government. He has high goals.

"I feel like if I'm successful, I'm going to look back decades from now and try to see what the evidence is of success here,” Brown said. “If it's lower incarceration rates, it's higher graduation rates, it's lower poverty rates. those to me are the pieces of evidence of long-term systemic improvement is human and Oklahomans have a better life and that's what we're here for."