It starts at the top
February 23, 2012
Philip Browning is one of the smartest and most able public administrators on the local government scene anywhere in America.
We just named him to a job that will require every one of his talents—and then some.
As the new director of the county’s Department of Children and Family Services, Browning is leading the charge to reform a department in need of strong management after years of fear, indecision and secrecy that often kept policy-makers and the public needlessly in the dark. Too many vulnerable children ended up suffering and, in some tragic cases, dying when they should have been protected.
Now, Browning is hitting the re-set button at DCFS. It is a gargantuan task—so much so that I told him, not entirely in jest, that I was listening closely during his swearing-in ceremony last week to make sure I heard him say under oath that he was taking the job “freely and without mental reservation.”
Yet despite all the many challenges ahead, I feel hopeful about the future.
That’s because Browning is a real leader—someone who can move his staff forward through inspiration, not fear, and who gets results through competence and accountability.
He is able to articulate a clear vision for where the department needs to go. He gives everyone around him an opportunity to be heard.
And he’s a proven turnaround artist. His first assignment when he arrived in Los Angeles County in 2001 was to overhaul the county’s child support operation—which was so fraught with troubles that it was a rare day that my office, and every other supervisor’s, didn’t receive multiple complaint calls about it. Once Browning was through, the complaints had dwindled to near zero—and recoveries from deadbeat parents had skyrocketed by 36%. From there, he moved on to head the county’s Department of Public Social Services, which under his leadership was able to reduce the food stamp error rate and save the county sizeable penalties as a result.
Never have Browning’s skills been more desperately needed than at DCFS. His mandate is to completely transform the culture of a department where accountability and common sense have been in short supply, and where fear of making a wrong decision has frequently led to the worst move of all: doing nothing.
That’s not Browning’s style. Yes, he has genteel manners and a gentle Alabama accent, but this is one canny and decisive manager.
He hit the ground running when the Board of Supervisors asked him to take over the department as interim director last August. When he saw a spike in the placement of children in group homes—widely viewed as a less-than-desirable situation, especially for young kids—he stepped in with a new set of policies to discourage the practice. Now, 8-year-olds and younger children may not be placed in group homes without his personal approval or that of his chief deputy.
He believes in, and lives by, statistics. Metrics from each regional office are now beamed up on big screens for all to see—and act on—at monthly management meetings. Bulletin boards have been installed in all the regional offices, too, with the same statistics openly on display. In some ways, it reminds me of former Police Chief Bill Bratton’s statistics-driven approach to successful law enforcement.
But Browning is not just a numbers guy. He’s also a personable, hands-on leader. Staffers say they are encouraged and energized to have a top boss who communicates often and well, sets clear but ambitious goals and is a visible presence around the department. “We have much to do, but with you we can go all the way,” one manager told him the day he was appointed.
This isn’t a job that Browning sought. I’ll admit that I and others of my board colleagues had to work hard to persuade him to make the jump from interim to permanent director. But we appealed to his better angels and convinced him of how much the county, and its children, need him in this position.
It is a life-and-death challenge. These kids are the most vulnerable human beings in our society. Many have been literally bounced around—physically abused and shuffled from placement to placement. They deserve better.
In fact, they deserve the best. And we’re very fortunate that the best is now leading—with inspiration—from the top at DCFS.