Elected vs. bureaucratic control at Nebraska agency

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

What at first seems to be a freedom of expression issue with the Nebraska Health and Human Services System might actually be more akin to President Truman's relationship with Gen. Douglas McArthur.

When the egotistical World War II general ran afoul of the Missouri haberdasher, it was a question of civilian control over the military.

At issue this time is the right of elected officials to have control over bureaucrats.

A former HHSS employee said Gov. Dave Heineman's office controlled the agency too closely, to the point of micromanaging brochures and conferences.

The former employee, Charles Housman, who quit last month as public education coordinator for HIV prevention, told the Lincoln Journal-Star that the Heineman administration seemed more interested in avoiding controversy among its more conservative constitutes than delivering the latest in sexual health information.

It got to the point that the conference, "Issues Impacting Sexual Health" was changed to "HIV, STDs and Reproductive Health: A Topical Update."

?Conference speakers and other workers were to avoid controversy as well, Housman said. "You expect HHS to push the envelope," Housman said.

The administration apparently didn't agree.

For their part, Heineman administration officials told the newspaper the original conference title was "too ambiguous," and that the governor's administration is pro-life, values adoption over abortion and seeks to establish policies that support families. "But not being controversial is not the guiding force," HHS spokeswoman Kathie Osterman said.

Like the generals in the field, we're sure some of the old HHS officials were frustrated at being second-guessed and short-circuited as they tried to do their jobs.

But it's only natural for a conservative governor in a state like Nebraska to want to cover all the bases when it comes to hot-button issues like sex education and abortion.

It's also tempting for those who don't answer to the voters to try to advance their own agendas, especially when those agendas don't agree with their elected bosses.

Certainly, professionalism should rule, especially when it comes life-or-death, cut-and-dried issues with which the newly reorganized Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services deals on a daily basis.

But there are gray areas at the margins.

If enough voters don't agree with the direction the administration is taking the state, they have their chance to change it in the next general election.

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