New ideas by L.A. County leaders are welcome -- but are they right?

Key principles for L.A. County's organizational shake-up: flexibility, functionality, transparency

Los Angeles County government is in the midst of an intriguing organizational shake-up. In one move announced Thursday, the office of the chief executive was reconfigured to make it easier to implement reforms in child welfare and the Sheriff's Department. That's encouraging, at least in concept. Failures in those two areas over a number of years have resulted in needless injury to people under county supervision, and although the causes include mistakes and misfeasance by county personnel, they also include poor management and oversight and a frustrating inability to swiftly move expertise and resources across departmental lines to solve problems. These administrative changes could help ensure that the substantive reforms actually work.

And on Tuesday, the Board of Supervisors will consider a plan to consolidate three departments — Health Services, Public Health and Mental Health — into a single agency. In theory, such a move could create a more nimble county government that's better able to, for example, provide care and housing for mentally ill homeless people without worrying about which department has jurisdiction.

It's encouraging that the Board of Supervisors is willing to tinker with its org chart in the service of getting things done for the people of L.A. County. The bent toward experimentation may be a result of last year's election, which brought two new members to the board; but it's also noteworthy that the consolidation motion comes from Supervisor Michael D. Antonovich, who has served since 1980.

But while new ideas are welcome, it is not yet clear whether these the right ones. Let's recall that it seemed like a good idea, less than a decade ago, when the board pulled the public health functions from the Department of Health Services and created a new agency. If that was the right move, why is it right to reverse it now?

In a government with the scope and scale of responsibilities of L.A. County, there will always be tension between the desire to focus attention on particular problems by designing departments around them — that's how the Department of Children and Family Services was created three decades ago, for example — and the opposite desire to merge and meld in order to remove institutional barriers to getting things done.

There is no permanent correct answer. The guiding principles should be flexibility, functionality and a sufficiently open, transparent and deliberative process to ensure that organizational changes are properly thought through. To that end, the board should work to make sure that stakeholders in the mental health and public health fields, and the public at large, have adequate opportunities to study and offer comment on the proposed changes.

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