The state Department of Human Services is talking with ordinary Oregonians about how it spends money and delivers services. This is not merely a bureaucratic exercise, but a commendable effort to quantify the human needs of this state and develop better ways of meeting those needs. In the end, if this process led by DHS Director Dr. Bruce Goldberg is successful, it will have turned the tables on how the department prepares its budget for the 2009-11 biennium.
Rather than ask for traditional across-the-board increases in funding, the DHS will have a measuring device - similar to the Quality Education Model developed for school funding - that allows the governor and legislators to see just how far different levels of funding will carry them toward meeting health and human-service needs.
To begin to create this model, the DHS, which is one of the largest state agencies and serves some of the most vulnerable Oregonians, has been holding a series of seven community forums to determine what services will be most in demand in coming years.
Money will be tight in short term
The willingness to listen and to prioritize service delivery based upon need versus budget availability is a new and significant concept, as Oregon enters another period when state revenues are likely to drop due to the downturn in the economy and employment.
Preparing a prioritized, needs-based budget also is important due to the complexity of DHS, an agency that has a total budget exceeding $11 billion - including federal funds - and that receives more than $3.3 billion from the state's general fund.
But dollars only tell part of the immense tale of DHS, which provides general health-care services and a vast range of programs that include senior and disabled services, mental health counseling, drug treatment and food-stamp programs. The department also is responsible for foster home services, food-service inspection and water-testing programs, and it runs the Oregon State Hospital in Salem and a variety of community-based mental health programs.
By building a case for priority programs, DHS will be able to evaluate not only the needs of Oregonians but the order in which programs should be funded fully, partially or not at all.
That type of assessment will be invaluable to Gov. Ted Kulongoski, who will prepare a final DHS budget to submit to the 2009 Legislature, and for state legislators who ultimately will decide the level of funding the agency receives.
Without a prioritized needs assessment, the department's funding and services may remain in a status quo mode, where programs continue to be funded or emphasized based upon what has been done in the past.
Goal is to help even more people
We don't think that is what's best for Oregon or its citizens in the future - even if funding were no object.
But given that funds likely will be short, it is most appropriate that DHS is listening to Oregonians and reexamining how it delivers services to get the best results for people in need.
Eventually, better and more targeted service delivery will result in an improved quality of life for those who require health and human services.
By becoming as efficient as possible, DHS will be able to serve even more Oregonians than it has in the past at a cheaper cost than before - and that will mean even more people can be helped in the future.
We therefore believe the DHS budget strategy is a twofold winner: It prioritizes needs and it focuses on programs that get results.