Browning tapped for DCFS turnaround
February 14, 2012
When it comes to overhauling the county’s long-troubled Department of Children and Family Services, Philip Browning isn’t messing around with any halfway measures.
“What I’d like is within two years to be the national leader, for L.A. County to be the model for other jurisdictions in the child welfare area,” said Browning, shortly after being named to the agency’s top job Tuesday by the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors. “That’s my goal.”
Browning has been at the helm of the agency for the past six months as interim director. He was originally recruited to come to Los Angeles County in 2001 from Washington, D.C., where he served as the district’s child support director. His first assignment here was to remake the District Attorney’s child support division, one of the most troubled in the nation. With Browning in charge, collections increased 36%, to more than $500 million, as customer service improved dramatically.
“We got more complaints about child support than any other agency in the county before he arrived,” said Board of Supervisors Chairman Zev Yaroslavsky. “He turned it around and now we get virtually no complaints.”
Next up for Browning in 2007 was running the county’s sprawling and complex welfare agency, the Department of Public Social Services. Under his leadership, the department not only kept up with a mushrooming caseload but also radically reduced its error rate in signing people up for food stamps.
“He is a turnaround artist. He’s proven his ability to take a troubled department and turn it around,” Yaroslavsky said, noting that Browning did not apply for the DCFS position but was sought out by the Board of Supervisors.
He hasn’t wasted any time in his new assignment, as he seeks to make over an agency plagued with a series of highly-publicized lapses in protecting vulnerable children under its care.
A dormant strategic plan has been reawakened, with thousands of the department’s 7,300 employees submitting suggestions for initiatives and action items. Browning expects many of them to volunteer to take on new duties as the plan turns into reality.
Meanwhile, monthly meetings with top managers have been shaken up in a big way, with statistics from each DCFS office beamed up onto two huge screens for all to see. It’s part of a “data dashboard’ approach that not only introduces some healthy peer pressure and accountability to the proceedings but also makes it easier for managers to exchange ideas for solving each other’s problems.
“It’s pretty interesting to see the discussion,” Browning says.
He’s also looking for ways to remake the department’s emergency response command post system, which struggles to place children, especially teens and infants, in safe situations after hours.
“They see so many kids late at night that are so difficult to place,” he says. While the overall issue is complex, some simple fixes might be possible—such as forming a foster parents’ association that could help identify families willing to take late-night placements, or providing diapers or extra money to families willing to take on the challenge of caring for an infant.
And he’s getting ready to reorganize. “I’m foreseeing some pretty significant changes,” he says.
When Browning came in as DCFS’ interim director in August, he was the department’s third interim director in nine months. The previous permanent chief, Trish Ploehn, departed amid an uproar over high-profile child deaths and questions about whether the department was being open with policy-makers and the public. Browning’s appointment to the $255,000-a-year post is effective Thursday, Feb. 16.
Browning has a master’s of social work degree, but acknowledges he doesn’t have a deep background in child welfare.
“I think my value is management,” he says. “I see myself as an implementation guy.”
He said that over the course of his career, a variety of assignments—from running a grocery store to managing units responsible for U.S. Navy reserve logistics—have given him the tools to get things done.
Even as he’s thinking big at DCFS, Browning is stressing a simple set of principles to his new workforce.
“Common sense, critical thinking and accountability: I think almost anything you do falls within those parameters,” Browning says. “I have to be accountable, and our staff has to be accountable.”