Senator sees opportunity for change amid crisis

If every crisis also presents an opportunity, state Sen. Mark DeSaulnier thinks the state’s current predicament makes this an ideal time to restructure the way government operates.

DeSaulnier, a former Concord city councilman and Contra Costa County supervisor, has seen California government from just about every level, and he has seen its dysfunction.

Now he is chairman of the Senate budget subcommittee that deals with health and human servivces programs, and he is hoping to use the crisis to drive innovation and collaboration into the system. I caught up with DeSaulnier last week at the Working Families Summit in Sacramento, and discussed his take on the problem and potential solutions.

DeSaulnier was a county supervisor during the early 1990s recession, when Contra Costa helped introduce the idea of integrated service delivery. That’s a fancy name for having workers from different programs stationed in one place so a resident can get help from different agencies without having to go from building to building or even town to town.

“Most of our demands on services are in impoverished communities,” he said. “Those are the places where school districts struggle, those are the places where rates of obesity are high, drug abuse, all those things. They are interconnected. The opportunity is to change the way you deliver services to the people who need the services, so it’s less driven by the bureaucracy and more driven by the clients’ needs.”

“It’s not rocket science, but the project has shown that the outcomes are much better and the costs over a long period of time come down.

The problem, though, is that this sort of change inevitably involves start-up costs, and no one wants to put money into new endeavors during a budget crisis, even if it’s clear that the move will save money in the long run.

“It’s like obesity,” he said. “We know that if young people get in a habit of eating healthy food, the likelihood of them being healthier later in life and saving all of us money and having a richer, more rewarding life is much higher.”

But obesity prevention costs money, and no one wants to put money into a new program when old ones are being cut.

“It’s just very frustrating,” he said. “People don’t like change. That’s the problem. It’s trying to get people to change.”

DeSaulnier said the first step might be to give local governments incentives to collaborate and adopt prevention policies as part of a state move to transfer programs, and money, to cities and counties from the state government. Even that, however, might be a challenge, he said.

“Big system changes never happen when things are going well,” he said. “They happen when you are really in tough shape. But it’s still very hard. “

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