Monday, June 21, 2010

Politics and Compassion - Compassion Nearly Always Comes Up Short

I worked for a residential treatment center that was one of the best in the state. We had the best outcomes rate of any residential treatment center in the state at the time. We were closed twice, both times when the director was scheduled to testify before the state sunset commission that the half dozen confusing, fragmented child care agencies in Texas should be combined into one. I don't think the timing of the closures was an accident.

A consulting agency once told the governor that the child care system was a string of private fiefdoms, often working at odds with one another and the most "woefully inefficient" system they'd ever seen. Our director was right that the system needed to change and her decision to stand up for reform was courageous in that those agencies also paid our bills. Bravery can have its cost.

I will always believe that the state agencies wanted to discredit the director before the Sunset Commission met that October and that they were looking for an opportunity to do so. We took on a child that even the state hospital wouldn't attempt to treat. We took him in and it cost us dearly. They closed us over a serious incident in which the boy lost his life. The state hospital knew that might happen and simply kicked him out.  We tried to help and failed.  The agencies smeared the boss to keep her away from the Sunset Commission a few months later. The agencies managed to keep the system from being changed and survived in their fragmented condition till 2004 when the new Republican legislature combined 22 separate health and human service agencies into just 5.

I was proud to be part of the lobbying effort to get that done. I remember a guy came around to speak to a meeting of nonprofit folks.  He said that he represented a citizen group who opposed the proposed amalgamation of the agencies. He quoted scary statistics and scenarios where little old people and starving children died homeless on the street if the reorganization went through.  In the midst of the meeting, I began to smell a theme to the presentation and, possibly, an accompanying rat!  I raised my hand.
"Who do you represent?" I asked.
I'm with the Citizens Council....."
"No, no," I interrupted.  "I mean who do you work for.  Who writes your paycheck?"
"Uh, uh," he stammered.
"I mean somebody let you off work to do this speaking tour," I said helpfully.
"Well, I work for the Federal and State Employees Union," he finally admitted, "But..."
"Thank you," I smiled.  "I understand now why your organization opposes this legislation.  You guys are worried about all the state employees that could be laid off."
"Well, of course," he explained. "Without all those employees, who will deliver the services?"
"How about if we just have to only go to one office to get services we need instead of to 4 or 5."
He scoffed at me. I think he actually gave a little snort of derision.
I love bureaucrats. It's so easy to make 'em snort.  
I once went to a transportation stakeholder's meeting (trust me, you don't want me to explain what that is. We had about 50 social workers in the room, all complaining that about half their clients couldn't drive and couldn't find a way to get to the places where the services they need are delivered. The rural transit manager kept interrupting us to tell us that her organization could provide that transportation. If we'd just call the 800 number, she insisted, we'd have all our clients' transportation problems solved.
I raised my hand.
"If you have all these transit services," I asked, "Why is it that I'm sitting in a room with 50 social workers who don't have any idea that these services are available?  Why don't you market or advertise?  Let people know you have all these wonderful transportation services."
Her eyes grew wide with horror, I kid you not.  "Oh, we couldn't do that," she snorted derisively, "We'd be swamped!"
"So, let me get this straight," I said, scratching my head. "You deliberately don't advertise because you couldn't handle the demand?" I sat down. "Then you ain't got the transportation stuff what you just said you got."
I used to get hate mail from their agency. I later discovered that they demanded old people living out in the country build circular drives before they'd send a bus after them. I used to have to call the transit provider to remind them that they actually did have to deliver the services their grant called for them to deliver, I don't care how inconvenient  it might be.  They used to complain that I "didn't understand how transportation worked" and suggested I shut up in meetings.  They hated me so much that when I served on the state rural transit advisory committee and tried to triple their budget, they opposed it.  
And there is the problem.  Politicians and bureaucrats may say they are all about helping people and that they are the Grand High Poobah's of compassion, but where the rubber meets the road, where compassion is stacked up against power and position, compassion turns to something that looks vaguely like compassion, but primarily serves the need of the apparatus rather than the folks the apparatus was intended to help.
I'm just sayin'
Tom King

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