Magazine article Policy & Practice

Legacy in Terms of Tradition and Principles

Magazine article Policy & Practice

Legacy in Terms of Tradition and Principles

Article excerpt

The issue of legacy must be divided into two parts: the tradition we are trying to establish and the principles we are promoting. These should not be confused with programs and policies that can change with new directors and new governors. We should always seek change and improvement in programs and policies, and ensure their relevancy. Legacy is how we act as leaders in the field to support its most deeply held intentions and to realize its next best steps, whether incremental or immediate.

Those of us who have run a state government department for some time or have run more than one department or agency have considered this issue. We are no longer in the swirl of the novelty of doing this for the first time. We know that a cult of personality is not a viable tool for results, but an illusion. Ask any former director who forgot that some constituents relate to our position and less to us as individuals, until we no longer have the job.

When we first start, we often are learning--handling budget crises, determining which high-level staff will stay, learning whether we will have access to the governor, determining our "control" agencies and how to deal with the Feds. It is a wonderful time, and if we are lucky, we listen to the field well enough to see where our legacy effort should be directed.

In the late 1970s, I was appointed to run the Office of Alcoholism and then the California Department of Alcohol and Drug Program, a $100 million program. In early 1999, I was appointed by a different governor to lead the California Department of Social Services, a $21 billion agency. But whatever agency, department or office you lead, many of the possibilities are the same. In both cases I used my first year in office to canvass the state to find out what was on the mind of those who were devoted to serving their clients in the best way possible, traveling 80,000 miles that first year.

Legacy never lies in our hands alone. Instead, it is in the hands of clients, those laboring in the field, the general public, and elected officials--primarily the legislature. It is their vision, determination to see change incorporated, and the political will and ability to create change. It is our privilege to regularly gather them together, ensure that we are speaking the same language, create a network that includes the outliers, and to foster collaboration. A network is always more robust and resilient than any one of us or any single gubernatorial administration.

Can we control the building of a legacy? Yes and no. Approaching the task with a Newtonian view that there is a reliable system of cause and effect will result in a great deal of disappointment. The effort requires structure but is organic, complex. Also, effecting immediate large-scale change without calculating the possible unintended consequences can be a disaster. Isolating those who don't agree with us and not including the implementers when developing the legacy architecture, who has not yet learned that this is a recipe for failure? It may be our personal idea that wins the day, but without those in the field feeling that it was an idea born from their experience, it is a transient personal imposition. As many directors know, you pay at the end of the process for not listening at the beginning, when it becomes just as much, if not more, time-consuming.

One focus of my term was the redesign of California's child welfare system. I chose that area because it was one of the governor's interests, but a year of travel also made it clear that it was the desire of the field. …

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