This is about management and politics. And the management of politics, and vice versa.
Gov. Dale Bumpers often held meetings of his Cabinet in the conference room adjoining his Capitol office. He could.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson holds his Cabinet meetings in the Great Hall of the Governor’s Mansion. He has to.
For Bumpers, it wasn’t always that convenient. Nor for his predecessors, although they didn’t organize their department heads as a cabinet per se; and each had a “kitchen cabinet.” No, Bumpers realized even before he took office, what his immediate predecessor, Winthrop Rockefeller, had recognized: that no governor should have any expectation of successfully steering his administration if he could not delegate authority and responsibility; and that doing so was effectively impossible when dealing with scores of individual agency heads. The system demanded the chief executive micro-manage, never a fruitful approach in either the public or private sectors; and by the mid-20th Century government in Arkansas had so expanded that tending its mechanisms was more than any individual could reasonably accomplish.
Rockefeller was appalled by the schematic of the executive branch; it made no sense. At his Petit Jean farm he assigned the feeding and breeding of the Santa Gertrudis to staff. Why the devil should he, as governor, be taking calls about State Police ammunition purchases and reading memos about nursing hires at the Health Department?
At no small expense (from his own pocket, though he could afford it) Rockefeller, a Republican, commissioned a study of the administrative state and proposed a significant reorganization, a major streamlining. As with so many other of his initiatives, the General Assembly, almost exclusively Democratic, rejected it. The plan imperiled too many fiefdoms presided over by too many agency heads secure in their individual bureaucracies, and protected by too many legislators with a personal or political stake in the status quo.
Bumpers shared Rockefeller’s disdain for the mélange. The new governor tinkered with the plan before essentially adopting it as his own (he would thereafter credit Rockefeller for it) and, after comparatively little wailing and gnashing of legislative teeth, persuaded the lawmakers to enact it. Sixty state agencies thus were umbrellaed beneath one or another of a baker’s dozen cabinet departments.
Was the corporate model too good to last? Or not good enough? Perhaps it was simply destined to lose its effectiveness against the increasing demand for services by Arkansans and the federal government’s expanding regulatory requirements. Politics — legislators, interest groups, the culture of some state agencies — began to gnaw at the framework. The Department of Planning was abolished within years, as was the Public Safety department, and their various bureaus regained their independence.
At the same time new agencies were spawned, either at the behest of the departments, some of them overwhelmed, or by ambitious legislators. The 13 officers who reported directly to Bumpers after the 1971 reorganization now total 40. And the 175 advisory boards and commissions that were in place then today number almost 400. Many have no operational responsibilities and are a nuisance to the professionals who staff the agencies. (If appointing the members is a time-consuming, headache-inducing chore, it also allows governors, and sometimes legislators, some additional patronage to bestow.)
When Bumpers summoned his cabinet its members could fit, almost, around the big conference room table. (He would occasionally permit a brief photo-op before politely excusing the press). To my knowledge the only Hutchinson cabinet meeting reporters were allowed to attend — we were invited, actually; it was a policy roll-out — saw the Great Hall of the Mansion filled to capacity.
Today, a half-century after a frustrated Rockefeller pondered why a change in the Employment Security Division’s stationery needed his approval, a beleaguered Mr. Hutchinson wonders why he need meet with, say, the director of the state Fair Housing Commission. And he asks: If Bumpers could consolidate four score agencies into 13 departments, can’t I realign 40 into 20? He will request the legislature accommodate him next year.
Credit the Governor with sincerity: he’s sitting atop a corporation that employs tens of thousands and which annually spends $12 billion or so (in state and federal dollars); and, in as much need of sleep as any other mortal, he correctly calculates he will continue to get too little if his calendar and in-box are jammed with meetings and memoranda that ought be routed to his senior managers.
As to why it took him almost four years to decide as much, consider also that Mr. Hutchinson faces a Republican primary opponent who paints him as a free-spending liberal lolling atop a bloated and expanding payroll. Reshaping state government will save less money than the concept suggests — the Governor notes that any reduction in employees will come through attrition — but it’s a fair enough antidote to the big government bellow from his rival. And smart government is smart politics.
Oh, the spadework for the proposed reorganization? It was done by a state government advisory board, created just last year.