This month marked the changing of the guard in two major departments of Kansas government. Social and Rehabilitation Services Secretary Rob Siedlecki stepped down to return to Florida, less than a year after accepting his job. And Transportation Secretary Deb Miller left office after nine years with the Sebelius, Parkinson and Brownback administrations.
It’s not unusual for there to be a Cabinet shake-up after a year or so. But the differences between the two departures are noteworthy, both for what they tell us of the past and what they may portend for the future.
With all the drama of the past 11 months – from abrupt firings to the information technology fiasco to arbitrary local office closings and the abortive move of juvenile justice programs to SRS – Siedlecki might well appear to be a short-term hatchet man, hired to institute large-scale changes and then leave. But that appears way too coherent.
Rather, Gov. Sam Brownback gave the secretary a long leash, which turned out to be enough rope to hang himself. With his religiosity and ill-considered (but self-assured) decisions, Siedlecki had a gaffe-a-week style that proved disastrous. But far more injurious was his willingness, even eagerness, to drive out a raft of veteran SRS middle managers, exactly the people who will be needed to administer the impending changes to Medicaid and other health care programs.
Kansas newspapers have been virtually unanimous in their negative editorial stance toward Siedlecki, whose style and substance placed him far outside the norms of past SRS administrators.
Standing in sharp contrast to Siedlecki is KDOT’s Miller, whose tenure has continued and strengthened a long Kansas tradition of maintaining a strong highway system.
Despite having her department serve as a virtual bank that helps fund many other state programs with timely transfers of cash, Miller has taken advantage of the down economy to build roads more cheaply and stretch resources. Moreover, she helped push through a new transportation program in 2010, which amazed most Topeka insiders and continued the state on a stable course.
Rather than sweep out employees, Miller kept her talented corps largely intact. Thus, when the governor needed a state IT chief to replace his unqualified, fraudulently credentialed appointee, he chose KDOT’s top IT administrator.
And Kansas newspapers? Although her exit did not produce the same amount of ink as Siedlecki’s, Miller received universal praise for her work as the KDOT secretary.
What’s important in the differing stories of the two secretaries is how the Brownback administration will approach their replacement. Although it’s fashionable to disparage state employees – and especially those at SRS – Kansas has never been more in need of highly qualified staff, given the exodus over the past few months.
So in searching for an SRS secretary, the governor could do a lot worse than looking for a steady, clever and reliable “Deb Miller type,” because one Siedlecki in an administration was one too many.