5 questions for David Wilkins

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David Wilkins became the Secretary of the Florida Department of Children and Families in early 2011 – just days before the body of ten-year-old Nubia Barahona – who was supposed to be under the watch of the agency – was found, triggering a public outcry over the gruesome crime and the DCF shortcomings it revealed. Wilkins led the agency’s response, which included hiring dozens more child protective investigators, redesigning their role and training, and revamping the Florida Abuse Hotline. 

In March 2012, Gov. Rick Scott tapped Wilkins as the state COO for Government Operations, in addition to his job at DCF. He’s charged with steering all executive branch agencies to increased efficiencies and reduced government bureaucracy. 

Wilkins acquired his reputation for efficiency at Accenture, where he worked for 29 years, retiring the year before he joined DCF. The company had 200,000 employees and a market cap of more than $34 billion. Wilkins, who was promoted to partner at age 32, oversaw local offices in 25 countries and led the government strategic planning and corporate acquisitions units.

Wilkins chairs the Florida Children and Youth Cabinet, serves on the Medicaid and Public Assistance Fraud Strike Force and sits on the Attorney General’s Commission on Drug Abuse and Prevention. He also serves on the boards of the United Way and the Florida Baptist Children’s Homes, and he and his wife, Tanya, have been recognized for their philanthropy.
The News Service of Florida has five questions for David Wilkins:Q: How’s that double-job thing working out for you?

WILKINS: The spring and summer were crazy, in terms of the amount of activities going on. We were putting a plan together about an efficiency agenda, how we would address what issues. At the same time, we had a lot of [state agency] secretary positions open. New people were coming in, and we were still recruiting other executives. 

Things have really calmed down now. We put a plan together, we’re running with that plan, all the other appointments are in, so all the different agencies are delivering on their strategies. And we put together legislative priorities for this session that [the Department of Management Services] is primarily running, around efficiency initiatives. 

I spend almost all my time back at DCF now. That’s always my first priority, and will always be my first love as well. 

Q: Talk about the efficiency agenda.

WILKINS: We systematically took the top 150 contracts across all agencies and asked the simple question, “Are we getting the best value for our dollars on these contracts?” We have made magnificent success in improving the efficiency of those contracts. The stories are great. Some are vendors coming to the table and saying, “Here’s a different way I could do things that could improve quality and value at a lower price.” In some cases, it’s us looking at different contracts across different agencies and saying, “What if we combine these?”

What we’re looking at now is institutionalizing this contract review and contract performance capability into DMS as a long-term service that we’ll continue to do on a long-term basis.

Q: What legislation is DCF proposing this year? 

WILKINS: This is Year Three of our legislative priorities, and we are in the middle of implementing our strategic plan, which is continuing to drive efficiencies in the organization. So we have some additional cost take-out that we’re proposing for this legislative session – which is, again, primarily in Tallahassee back-office operations. 

But we also have some additional performance improvement initiatives. So we have an initiative around community based care. If you remember, last year we implemented the Scorecard programs in terms of measuring performance at our different CBCs, which has been very successful. They’ve all risen to the challenge and improved their performance an average of about 20 percent in just one year. I think that’s just magnificent. It proves the age-old concept, “You get what you measure.”

What we’re proposing this year is, we actually want to reserve a set of monies to reward high-performing community based care organizations. Because really, if you think about what we do in foster care and community based care, we run those foster-care programs. 

Long-term, what we really need to do is invest more money in prevention and front-end services, to keep kids out of the system and keep families together. I just don’t believe we spend enough on that side. The reason that most people explain is, “We just don’t have enough money to spend.” So what I want to do is start incenting our community based care organizations to spend more money, and one of the ways we’re going to do that is with some performance-based spending.

That’s really a budget priority, about $6 million. My expectation is that’d go up every year. So this year is really the beta.

Q: You’re also working on revamping the independent living program [for youth aging out of foster care].

WILKINS: There have been many attempts at this. This year we really buckled down, established a new advisory committee to look at the issue. And I think we have a very good solution that will not increase the cost at all, in terms of the overall cost of the independent living program, and should improve performance. 

Sen. [Nancy] Detert, [R-Venice], who was the original author of the independent living program well over a decade ago, is sponsoring the bill to make these changes. We’re going to put increased performance expectations into the programs. And so for the children who qualify for this, in essence, subsidy, to help them get through college or vocational training, they will have performance expectations. But as part of that, we have to put some more infrastructure in place to support them and help them be successful. 

And the simple model is, people today do not send their kids off to college and say, “Call me when you’re done.” So we’re not going to do that to our kids, either. We’re going to put some mentoring and support capabilities in place for this program to help ensure that they’re successful and then demand that they ARE successful. 

It will cost a couple of million for the program – to manage it, identify the mentors, sign ’em, track ’em, all those things. But the offset is: these kids will get through the program faster and the outcomes will be better. We’re going to save the state money because these kids are going to be real contributors to society once they get through the system.

Q: What are you doing to reduce the number of children with disabilities in nursing homes?

WILKINS: We implemented a change this summer through the Children and Youth Cabinet, where we implemented a new memo of understanding between [the Agency for Persons with Disabilities], [the Agency for Health Care Administration], DCF and [the Department of Juvenile Justice] around how we would handle children with disabilities, because in most cases those kids cross all our different organizations. So this memo defined a prioritization scheme that basically puts these kids at the top of our list in terms of making sure that we’re providing the right services and maximizing all the different federal and state program that these kids can benefit from. 

We don’t need new legislation, I don’t think, to deal with that. This new program is starting to pay off. 

Definitely the number of children in nursing homes has grown unacceptably to a higher level. And even in DCF, we had about 40 kids who were in foster care that were in nursing home settings. So we have taken a holistic approach to that and said, basically, none of these kids need to be in nursing homes unless their medical condition warrants that that is the only choice. We have about a dozen kids that, unfortunately, that is the only option for them.

But for the other children who may have medical conditions, if we can find medical foster homes, then our only responsibility is to train those parents to handle those types of situations. So we’re having great success on that. We’ve cut that number down to under 20 right now, and we’ve got 5 or 6 kids that still need placement. And we’re actively recruiting foster parents to perform that function in those particular communities.

Peter Schorsch is the President of Extensive Enterprises and is the publisher of some of Florida’s most influential new media websites, including SaintPetersBlog.com, FloridaPolitics.com, ContextFlorida.com, and Sunburn, the morning read of what’s hot in Florida politics. SaintPetersBlog has for three years running been ranked by the Washington Post as the best state-based blog in Florida. In addition to his publishing efforts, Peter is a political consultant to several of the state’s largest governmental affairs and public relations firms. Peter lives in St. Petersburg with his wife, Michelle, and their daughter, Ella.