Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

Changing state government means changing culture and attitudes, official says

Making real, positive change in the way state government operates will take a real, definitive change in the culture of state government, a state official told the University of Denver Strategic Issues Program panel Aug. 26.

Karen Beye, executive director of the Colorado Department of Human Resources, told panelists state government is loaded with talented, hard working people with great ideas and great drive. But the very way that state government is set up — from the annual budget process to the length of elected office terms — pressures the system and foils reform.

Beye joined Joan Henneberry, executive director of the Colorado Department of Health Care Policy and Financing, and Roxy Huber, executive director of the Colorado Department of Revenue, at the information-gathering panel meeting. They provided an inside look at the challenges facing state programs as the SIP panel, led by Director Jim Griesemer, embarks on the program’s fifth major study. The year-long study will seek to understand the role of state governments in the 21st century and develop recommendations for governance.

The nonpartisan panel of 20 leaders in government, academia, business and public service will explore all facets of state governance, from expenditures and funding to their relationships with federal and municipal governments. Additionally the panel will study the way sub-national governments work in other countries. Griesemer said he hopes to have findings and recommendations ready by next summer.

Beye said launching ambitious new projects is dicey at the state level. Because of the way the state budget is set up, new programs get their funding in July, then it’s December before all the infrastructure is set up and the program is running. Within weeks after the startup, the budget process has started for the next year and budget officers are asking about the program’s results to see if it will get renewed funding.

To let programs work and to let different departments collaborate across all state government branches, there must be a complete culture change, she said. That could include a constitutional change in the budgeting process to let lawmakers set budgets in two-year cycles.

“The culture change cannot be done by the governor alone,” she said. “It has to be a vision of change by the governor and the Legislature.”

Having a six-year term for governor would help administrations see change through to a conclusion, she said.

Henneberry said that from her end, Medicare costs are rising dramatically and are straining state budgets. Curbing costs will take holistic change, she said. Providers will have to be reigned in from providing an unlimited number of services and tests unless they are truly needed, and recipients need to be included in their own care so they can live healthier and get care early before relying on an emergency room.

She said there are lessons to be learned from private managed-care providers and other states. But any change will have to include all three sides: the state government, the providers and the patients.

While other departments are spending, the Department of Revenue is struggling to keep up with the costs and technology of collecting money the state is due. And that takes money, too, Huber said. While the state struggles to pay its bills in a tough economic climate, the technology is falling behind. Workers at the state lottery until recently were working off an old Wang computer. And in the Department of Motor Vehicles, workers still use “green screen” computers and don’t have access to e-mail, she said.

“I have a lot of data about everyone in the state, and we need to protect that,” she said. “But it’s hard to convince a citizen Legislature that we need to protect all that data when they are trying to find money for sick children … The biggest risk I see for all of us is in technology.”

The Strategic Issues Panel’s next meeting will be Sept.9 from 8 a.m.–noon on the sixth floor of DU’s Daniels College of Business. The public is welcome to attend. For more information, visit

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