Should the governor have more power to appoint agency directors? (Capitol Updates)

Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1991. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol. You can sign up on his website to receive the Capitol Updates newsletter by email.

governor_officeThe long-discussed issue of Oklahoma’s method of managing state government was again on the table last week in a Senate interim study requested by Sen. Kim David.  Due to its populist beginnings Oklahoma has an executive branch in which the power is diffused between the governor and the various agencies.  For most agencies the governor appoints the citizen members of a governing board or commission that sets policy for the agency and hires the director.  Often the terms of the members overlap so that it takes a while before a majority of the appointments have been made by the current governor.  Thus, when a governor wants to direct the policy or performance of an agency she has to work with holdover appointees as well as her own in order to get the changes she wants.  Some would prefer a setup where the governor is more like the CEO of a corporation, and the power flows directly from the top.

As with most things political, arguments can be made for both forms of state government.  People who want a more powerful governor say that the corporate model is more efficient and lends itself to more transparency and accountability.  You don’t waste a lot of time with various factions or interests meddling in policy.  The governor says what we’re going to do, and the agencies do it.  If things go wrong we know where the fault lies-with the governor-and whom to hold accountable.  If things work well, the governor gets the credit.  In other words, government works better because one person is in charge and we know who it is.

People who prefer a more diffused power structure say a little inefficiency in government may be a good thing.  After all, unlike a corporation the government is supposed to be for the people.  Having the power spread out gives people a chance to break into the system somewhere along the line and be heard.  Most people will never have the governor’s personal attention.  They also say that having a new governor take over government every four or eight years and appoint new agency directors more to her liking does not necessarily lead to more efficiency.  There’s a lot of wasted motion in bringing political appointees up to speed and explaining to them that their “new” ideas may not work like they think.  And there’s little more debilitating than a political appointee who is out of step with the agency he is “running.”  As for transparency and accountability, no matter the form of government, when things go awry people shrewd enough to get elected governor are usually clever enough to find someone else to pin the blame on.

In the last few years the corporate model of governance has gained ground.  DHS, where the Commission on Human Services was eliminated and the governor now appoints the Director is a good example.  It probably hasn’t been long enough to say if DHS is working better because of the change.  But it would not be a surprise to see things continue in that direction.        


Steve Lewis served as Speaker of the Oklahoma House of Representatives from 1989-1990. He currently practices law in Tulsa and represents clients at the Capitol.

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