In the hours and days after Gov. Rick Snyder’s State of the State Address, a
speech built around the theme, the “River of Opportunity,” countless pundits
offered snarky remarks with aquatic themes.

Up the river without a paddle. The river to nowhere.
Snyder’s boat is sinking.
On one TV news show, the host even encouraged those
sitting on his panel to provide some river jokes.

But this was a rather shallow, knee-jerk reaction, in
part because TV does not know how to explain wonky government policies without
fretting about the impact on their audience ratings.

Tom Watkins, a veteran of numerous government posts, saw
the governor’s speech in a much different light. Watkins is a problem-solving
pragmatist who has no use for the punditry that feeds off of partisan bickering
that generates political gridlock.

The former state mental health director and state superintendent
of schools, Watkins ( now serves as president
and CEO of the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority, the largest locally based
mental health agency in Michigan.

He knows, better than most, how layers of bureaucracy can
render well-intentioned programs and policies ineffective, at best. Watkins
also appreciates Snyder’s fixation on metrics, a “dashboard” approach toward

So, he has written a column – and shared it with me –
about his conclusion that the River of Opportunity approach could be a
breakthrough for Michigan.

Here’s what he wrote:

Gov. Snyder is to be commended for calling on us all to put “people
over programs” in his “River of Opportunity” State of the State
address. The governor launched his second term calling for
“revolutionizing how government operates” to move all Michiganders
into the mainstream river of opportunity where he says most residents already

Tear Down These Walls

I have spent my entire life moving in and out of government, nonprofit and
private sector jobs, including the leadership of two major departments of state
government: Mental Health and Education under Govs. Blanchard, Engler and
Granholm.  I served as a management consultant with a major CPA firm and
lead a private business organization, the Economic Council of Palm Beach
County, Fla. In each of these roles, with insider knowledge, I was often
stymied by the years upon years of fragmented, siloed, layered programs that
had become as stratified and hardened as sedimentary rock.
It is a dream come
true to witness the governor challenge us all to break down bureaucratic walls and put people and their holistic needs first.
To be clear, Gov. Snyder’s call is as big and bold as it is revolutionary. He has set the vision and has spelled out a path that all should follow.

From The Beginning

I began my career in 1975 with a freshly minted degree from Michigan State University
in criminal justice, with an emphasis on juvenile justice. I seized the
opportunity to help create an emergency shelter for runway youth that remains in operation to this day. The need is still there for Counterpoint Runaway
Shelter, a program of Starfish Human Services, in Inkster. Shortly after our
doors opened, I ran into bureaucratic rules that put programs ahead of people.
Three youths showed up at the shelter. It turned out that their mother had been
arrested and sent to jail. The father was a no-show dad, long absent from the
kids’ life. Somehow, when mom was incarcerated, no one caught the kids in our
shredded social safety net. The oldest of the three kept the family together,
feeding and sheltering them until the rent came due and they were evicted.

Under the program rules on “age appropriateness,” I was supposed
to separate the kids, scattering them to separate programs.
“Absurd,” I thought then, to break up a family in order to help them.
Reminded me of that Vietnam-era quote: “We had to destroy the village in
order to save it.”
The statute of limitations clearly had passed. I broke the rules to do what
made sense — keeping the family together until the mother was released from
jail and we could reunite and wrap services around the intact family to support
them. I have been a commonsense rule breaker ever since.

Putting People First


As state superintendent of schools, I came to understand that when a teacher, a
principal, a superintendent, and school board were aligned around TLC– Teaching,
Learning and Children – not PCPA– Power, Control, Politics and Adults – good
things happen for kids. Sadly, like some in the health and human service
community, this alignment is not always there.
Gov. Snyder is challenging us all to get our priorities straight and align our
resources around people, not programs. Act like a 2-year-old and challenge old
assumptions. Ask, “Why? Why do we do things that don’t make sense to serve
people and maximize taxpayers resources?”
The governor has it right when he says, “This is truly an
opportunity to revolutionize how we operate and realize we work for real
people. They deserve results. They don’t deserve to be a number
in 15 different programs.”


Bright and Capable Leadership

There are two leaders in their own right that will help navigate the reforms
through the submerged obstructions that exist in any river of change: Nick
Lyon, director of the Michigan Department of Community Health and interim
director of the Michigan Department of Human Services,  and John Walsh,
the governor’s strategy director. Both are honorable and capable leaders.
Former state representative John Walsh spells out that the governor wants to
better coordinate services and focus on helping residents return to the
“mainstream” as soon as possible.
Lyon views the vision as a chance to “achieve more flexibility to become
more person-centric, reforming how we interface with our customers and making
the service delivery system more focused on the customer’s needs in resourceful
Who can argue with these goals?

From The

Snyder began his call to reimagine government during his first campaign
for office and has yet to slow down.  A big change will come with the
pending merger of the state’s Department of Community Health and the Department
of Human Services. This mega-department will serve some of
the state’s most vulnerable citizens.
Some have called for resistance to the changes and vision laid out by
Snyder. Doing so is not my nature. When I see an opening to enhance and
improve services, knock down bureaucratic barriers and a call to put people
first, count me in.

Become Sails – Not Anchors

The health and human services community should take up this challenge to do
better by the people we serve. Be sails, not anchors, for fresh ideas. With
input from the local level, we can go upstream for change that leads to
If you drill holes in a boat full of the ideas articulated by the governor
around the theme River of Opportunity, you are likely to sink us all.
Certainly there will be challenges. The boat of change may become temporarily
grounded in unexpected sandbars and even purposely forced to take on water by
the very protectors of the status quo. But the vision is worthy of following.

I, for one, expect to be joined by my colleagues across the state in
collaborating and partnering with the Snyder administration in working through
the challenges to make this perhaps once-in-a-lifetime opportunity work.
One challenge is always resources. Pending budget cuts will make change difficult,
but not impossible.
Together, we are truly better. Let’s embrace the vision and work harder and
smarter to make it work for all our fellow citizens.

Let’s begin by adopting the governor’s optimistic tone of “relentless
positive action,” and pursue this idea with dogged determination.