In either orchestration or desperation, Gov. Asa Hutchinson (R) is slowly filling many state agencies with staffers who first serve inside the office of Governor, sometimes simply called “250” – a numbered room location inside the State Capitol.
Outside that building and inside the actual state agencies, this governor is placing people who first prove competent while working directly under his supervision. This is instead of choosing random partisans or tenured bureaucrats, like many have done before. It’s a deliberate approach and less risky than wholesale change, which is another way of saying it’s exactly what we should expect from this particular governor. It also fits into his broader theme of management reform.
So far, three senior staff members have made the transition directly from “250” to agency leader.
Duncan Baird, a colleague and friend with whom I served in the House of Representatives, began inside “250” as a budget director. He has since been relocated to the Department of Finance and Administration and promoted to budget administrator for the Office of Budget. The new role has a managerial function but still retains the role of advising the governor.
Elizabeth Smith began as chief counsel to the Governor, but in June was appointed the Medicaid inspector general, which plays an increasingly important role in our state’s program integrity functions. Smith previously served as counsel at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) and as a deputy prosecutor for Larry Jegley, two non-partisan yet highly demanding roles.
Kane Webb, a newspaperman most of his life, might get the “Rookie of the Year” award if one existed for state government. His seemingly random hiring as deputy communications director in charge of speech writing snowballed into internal promotions and eventually the announcement last week that he would serve as the new director of Parks and Tourism. Webb was leading the search for the position that he will now fill. I hope they start calling him Cheney. He’s well respected but still an outsider, which is a good balance that’s hard to find.
Not all have received the “250” grooming, but still fit into the trend. Ted Thomas, a former state representative and one of the governor’s campaign consultants, was appointed chairman of the Public Service Commission. Thomas previously served there as an attorney during the Huckabee administration. Mark Myers, now director of the Department of Information Services, is a long-time Hutchinson advisor and served a stint as his Congressional Chief of Staff.
It’s fair to say this is what governors are supposed to do. With new elected officials come new faces in state government. But is doesn’t always happen like that. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) left in place many Democratic appointees. And it certainly doesn’t happen as quietly as it has under this governor.
His appointments are unique because they’re competent, not partisan, and they’re almost always people who have reported directly to him at some point in their career.
It takes a lot of time to change the inertia and culture of any entity, let alone a state agency. But leadership is always the first step. One way to speed the process up is to fill agencies with people who bought into a governor’s agenda and are familiar with his leadership style. If state management were like a religion, Gov. Hutchinson’s approach is to send in a missionary he trained instead of mailing a Bible and hoping it gets read.
I am sure these newly minted agency bureaucrats won’t like being referred to as missionaries, for fear the native population might become fearful of their presence. Or because those who have yet to be chosen as missionaries might become jealous and insecure about their own status. Neither reaction would be fair, since I’m ascribing a motive to the governor’s actions that no one knows to be true. Maybe it is a deliberate orchestration of surgical agency placement. Or maybe it’s just a high-level game of whack-a-mole, and nothing but happenstance and coincidence have caused this trend to emerge.
Regardless of the motive, the approach is good for things like agency management, contract procurement reform, and other conservative ideas that usually met roadblocks outside the State Capitol. Republicans have been guilty of thinking reform can happen from a committee meeting at the Capitol, which is the equivalent of seeing who can yell the loudest at the choir. Nothing ever changes, but everyone leaves feeling better.
This governor is taking a quieter and more effective approach. He’s the executive, so that’s his job. But he’s also spent most of his life as a Republican missionary in unfriendly places.
He probably just understands how to actually change things.