In 1997, the Iowa Legislature created an interim committee to examine options for reorganizing the Department of Human Services. At the time, there was bipartisan concern over the size of the Department and its ability to provide necessary services to Iowans. Rather than allow the Department or the executive branch to develop ideas for changes, legislators took it upon themselves to be agents of change.
What emerged from their efforts was an idea that local people were better equipped to make decisions about programs for children and families. From this, the legislators and citizens involved with the 1997 interim study came up with the idea of Community Empowerment. Bringing all the players in a community together, local citizens could help direct efforts to help get children ready to learn when they entered kindergarten.
Since 1998, state-level efforts on Empowerment have focused almost exclusively on addressing the 0-5 services. What has been forgotten is the other priority of the 1997 interim – ending duplication of early childhood services. As part of its duties, the Iowa Empowerment Board is charged with “developing and annually update a five-year plan for consolidating, blending, and redistributing state-administered funding streams for children from birth through age five made available to community empowerment area boards”. Iowa Code section 28.4 (11) (a)  Unfortunately, very little has been done to perform this duty.
Twelve years after the Legislature started the Empowerment process, it is hard to identify any program that has been eliminated or combined. This summer, the House Republican Research Staff went back to the original intent of Community Empowerment to see if the original goals had been met.
In a report entitled “Eliminating Program and Oversight Duplication in Community Empowerment: The Unachieved Goal,” staff found that overlapping programs and boards is an even bigger problem than in 1997.
For early childhood programs, staff identified 35 programs in four state agencies that provide significant services to children from age 0-5. That number is a significant increase over the 27 early childhood programs that were identified in 2005, when the Legislature last examined this issue. The chart at the end of the newsletter shows just the extent of the problem.
One area where the state has numerous programs addressing the same issue is in the area of parental education and the prevention of child abuse. There are at least nine different programs in the Departments of Education, Human Rights, Human Services, and Public Health that are involved in working with families to reduce the risk of child abuse.
The appearance of overlapping programs is even more pronounced when looking at Iowa’s child care and child development programs. Staff identified eleven programs within DE, DHS, and DPH that provide either child care or pre-school services to children under the age of 5 or support those programs.
It is important to note that these programs do not provide the exact same services or serve the same families. At a time when state budgets are tight, it would seem logical for policymakers to focus on eliminating duplication as a way to preserve as much funding as possible for direct services to Iowa children and their families.
For oversight, the creation of Empowerment has not meant a reduction in boards and commissions. In fact, when Empowerment was passed in 1998 there were two committees. Today, there are four – the Iowa Empowerment Board (DOM), the Child Development Coordinating Council (DE), the Child Care Advisory Council (DHS), and the Early Childhood Iowa Council (DPH). Do these groups work together? Not often.
As with the growing duplication of early childhood programs, the legislative intent to reduce the overlap and duplication of state boards and commissions has not happened. Instead, the Legislature has gone along with the adoption of new state boards that will perform the exact same function of the Iowa Empowerment Board.
With the Legislature focusing on the future of Community Empowerment during the debate over the state government reorganization bill, maybe it is time to focus on the one facet of Empowerment that has largely been forgotten – reducing duplication. Such an effort could have two positive effects for Iowans. Early childhood programs could be more focused at meeting the needs of the children and families they are to serve while also reducing the bureaucratic overlap and duplication that has grown over the past 12 years. One thing that should be saved is local control.
Question of the week: What do you think should be done to down-size the state government.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me during the interim. I can be reached at 641-634-2227, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
State Rep. Betty De Boef