Only a passing glance toward Washington, D.C., is sufficient to remind us that the gathering fiscal storm clouds are becoming more ominous by the day. Yet, in Mississippi we still have to live with the lists and rankings that constantly remind us of the dire straights in which many of our citizens find themselves. The challenges for the incoming administration will be great.
The litany of measures detailing high poverty rates and various negative health-related statistics have become a way of life for the newspaper reading public. Once again the fact should not escape us that Mississippi constantly vies with the likes of New Mexico, among others, for the position as the top “net gainer” from federal dollars. Depending on the measure used we receive around $2.00 for every $1.00 we send to Washington. The upshot of all of this is that when federal programs are cut we feel the cuts much more acutely than those less dependent on dollars coming from Washington and our ability to replace federal funds with dollars generated directly from Mississippians is similarly more painful. Yet it is clear that drastic cuts are indeed coming and no exceptions are being made for Mississippi.
In the search for solutions one that is clearly coming to the forefront is one of Gov.-elect Phil Bryant’s key campaign promises. He plans to press forward on the implementation of performance budgeting and performance management systems designed to maximize the impact of the dollars that are available. Implied in such approaches is the use of the most modern technology available to minimize the existence of outdated bureaucratic functions in favor of more efficient and effective delivery of government services. By doing so, decision makers are able to better target available dollars toward the government priorities for which they are intended.
The new governor, by coincidence, will have a significant opportunity at performance management awaiting him when he takes office in January. The crucial issue of the conditions of early childhood care in Mississippi has become a prominent one of late. It is important for two reasons. First, adequate childcare must be available for parents striving to gain and keep employment. Second, in the absence of state-sponsored pre-kindergarten programs the quality of childcare as a basis for the critical early learning experience becomes of paramount concern. The administration of the Child Care and Development Fund that enables some 45,000 children from low-income families to partake of the services of a childcare provider has been an increasing bureaucratic headache for a number of years. Based on a system of sub-contracting to designated agents scattered throughout the state, the program has become a classic case of cumbersome bureaucratic inefficiency. This fact has become apparent to Gov. Haley Barbour and his director of the Mississippi Department of Human Services, Don Thompson, and thus the decision has been made to reengineer the process in order to maximize the services that can be delivered from increasingly scarce federal funds. Ironically, the changes being put into place reflect the major recommendations of a performance audit conducted in 2007 by the State Department of Audit under then-State Auditor Phil Bryant.
The Department of Human Services’ Division of Childhood Care and Development under the direction of Dr. Jill Dent is in the process of eliminating the need for the bureaucratic layer of designated agents by automating the entire process from applications to record keeping and analysis. The need for “paper” certificates will be eliminated by the implementation of electronic scanning systems much like those that exist now for the food stamp program. Better targeting of program functions through instantly available records and the minimization of the potential for fraud and errors will be immediate impacts of the program. Rather than the difficult to access and monitor designated agents the 82 county offices of the Department of Human Services will be trained and equipped to ensure smooth system operation.
Why is this particular effort at transformative government of such importance?
This is a state where government-provided social services must play a more crucial role than in any other state in the union. In this case, time is of the essence, as are the quantity of people served. What happens to a child in its first three to four years of life has more to do with that child’s success in life than any other set of circumstances. The question of whether that child will be able to support him/herself and contribute to society or whether society will be responsible for that child for a lifetime is largely answered in this delicate early childhood period. If the approach recommended by Gov.-elect Phil Bryant and initiated by Gov. Barbour can gain traction in this difficult environment to provide such a key set of social services then all Mississippians will be the beneficiaries. The success of this process in government modernization, in addition to bringing stability to the businesses of those providing childcare services, will enable the new administration of Gov. Phil Bryant to score its first victory in the crucial process of selling the concept of performance management and budgeting to Mississippi government.
Dr. William Martin Wiseman is director of the John C. Stennis Institute of Government and professor of political science at Mississippi State University. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.