Thursday, April 20, 2006

New children and families head has chance for change

VICTORIA - I have not quite been able to let go of Ted Hughes' report on the children and families ministry.
The government has just announced a new top manager for the troubled ministry. Lesley du Toit, the South African who spent the last few months working in the premier's office, now has the permanent job.
But big questions about what went wrong remain. Hughes said the government has mismanaged the ministry for five years. Big changes were introduced without any effective plan. Unreasonable budget cuts were made, Hughes found, even though implementing change costs more money. So children and families suffered.
Governments, like all of us, mess up. What's baffling is that for four years the government was in denial. Plans were falling apart, budgets were based on wishful thinking, child death reviews were forgotten in a warehouse. And the politicians said everything was just fine.
We still don't know if they were hopelessly out of touch, or misleading us. Hughes said he favours the out-of-touch explanation. But if politicians are so insulated from reality that they can ignore warnings from front-line workers, families and the public, we have a profound structural problem.
There was, for example, no plan or budget for completing child death reviews after the Children's Commission was eliminated in 2002. Long after the failure became a major issue Gordon Campbell stood in front of reporters and said there was both a transition plan, and a budget. Somebody must have messed up, he said.
As Hughes pointed out, the premier was wrong. There was no plan, and no money.
Politicians shouldn't be so sadly and obviously misinformed. How can they be accountable, if they don't know what's going on?
Enter du Toit, newly named deputy minister for children and families. She's spent the last few months talking to staff and service providers as part of her consulting work for the premier's office. This week Campbell surprised no one by appointing her deputy minister.
Du Toit becomes the ninth deputy minister in 11 years. If you're on the front line, you aren't be betting much on her longevity.
But du Toit has some advantages, starting with a four-year contract. That's consistent with Hughes' concern about turnover in the ministry's senior management ranks.
She can still be dumped, or course. But the government would have to explain why it had soured on its chosen candidate, and had ignored Hughes' call for stability.
That gives du Toit considerable power to make change. The government has budgeted an extra $100 million over the next three years to fix things, based on the recommendations from Hughes and other reports that are still due. (It's alarming that after five years of fumbling the government is still waiting to figure out how to help kids and families in crisis. But that's where we are.)
Du Toit has the mandate, the money and the clout to make things better. For a year or two, she is charmed. The premier annointed her; should she fail, it will be a reflection on his judgment. It's a talisman for a manager.
Can she deliver? Those who have had dealings with her are impressed so far. She's familiar with many of the issues in B.C., serving as an advisor to the ministry since 2001, mainly as part of an international advisory panel.
It's tougher to see how her resume fits with this job. In 1995 du Toit helped set up the a child and youth care system for the Mandela government, a significant task. Since 1999, she's been executive director of the Child and Youth Care Agency for Development. That's a small organization, involved heavily in helping communities' cope with the effects of HIV/AIDS.
It's a leap to become top manager of a large, troubled B.C. ministry. But at least du Toit starts with the political clout to make the premier's office finally pay attention.
Footnote: A key thrust of du Toit's South African agency is promoting Circles of Care. HIV/AIDS has destroyed traditional family and community support for children in the many communities. The agency is experimenting with ways of building new local capacity to help vulnerable children and youth. The lessons should be applicable in many First Nations' communities.


Anonymous said...

"She (Lesley du Toit) can still be dumped, or course. But the government would have to explain why it had soured on its chosen candidate, and had ignored Hughes' call for stability."

LdT was annointed for a four year term by a government that only has three years left in its mandate.

I get a more than a little uncomfortable when polical appointments such as this go beyond a government's term.

It will be intersting to see where LdT ends up spending most of her time.
CLBC is following the Health Authorities disastrous and unresponsive regional model (x2 when you count the Aboriginal authorities) and the the number of developmentally disabled is growing almost exponentially, MCFD is still grossly underfunded, children services are paper monsters with no follow-up provisions.

"Du Toit has the mandate, the money and the clout to make things better."

Two out of three ain't bad Paul.
LdT may have a mandate and clout, but there is a dire shortfall of money to even bring service levels to what they were prior to the BC Liberals taking over - never mind what is required to do the job properly... unless you count the "free services" that CLBC is demanding from "the community" if families want to qualify for any CLBC-funded services.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with Anon, Paul.

In the 2001 Core Review, the main message in the 200+ submissions was not a demand for radical restructuring and cuts (only Doug Walls' Community Living Coalition proposed that). The main messages way back then were A) that the Ministry was underfunded and B) badly run/organized.

The dollars that have just been restored don't come close to where MCFD was in 2001, while caseloads and demands have grown exponentially, with an aging population of adults with DD, an explosion of children with autism, etc. The lack of serious commitment has been the problem with MCFD from Day 1 -- it costs money to serve these groups, just like it costs big money to build RAV & new highways, and the long-term costs of not paying now are far higher.

And re the suggestion that Mr Campbell and the BC Liberals weren't aware of how bad things were, don't buy that for a minute. Mr Hughes was just being polite.

Having witnessed the vast amount of energy that has gone into very deliberate and sophisticated spin to maintain the illusion that all was well these past four years (and that is still going on, it has become so instinctive & reflexive!), there is no doubt whatsoever that this was intentional. When you go to meeting after meeting and consultation after consultation and you see every single report and announcement so superbly "on message," you know you're not dealing with a disorganized incompetent lot.

And remember that it was not just parents & the odd heroic agency head ranting & raving -- they heard the same warnings and the same concerns from all their own internal and external experts -- going right back to the international panel who were asked to comment on Walls' devolution model back in September 2002. I still have their reports and Hughes basically affirmed what they all said way back then: You can't restructure in a period of fiscal restraint because it takes more resources (lots more!) not less, and trying to do both together is asking for disaster.

So why did they go ahead? Simple: the plan was to have devolution done by the time the budget cuts kicked in, by which time they could blame all the problems on the community authorities who were supposed to be in charge! The one thing they misjudged was Walls' ability to deliver.