Gov. Kevin Stitt announced Tuesday he is appointing Justin Brown, the Oklahoma City owner of several assisted living centers, to lead the Department of Human Services. Like Stitt, Brown is a private-sector businessman who brings an outsider’s perspective to the position.
“That’s kind of what Oklahomans elected me for is to think differently, think outside the box, and also to recruit and attract the type of talent that Justin is going to bring to this organization,” Stitt said.
Thanks to reforms approved by Oklahomans in 2012, the governor now has the power to appoint the director of DHS. Ed Lake, 70, has led the agency for almost seven years as an appointee of former Gov. Mary Fallin. Brown, 40, will take over the job on June 17.
This year lawmakers gave Stitt the authority to name the directors of five other agencies. Stitt has already made appointments at two, reappointing Steven Buck to lead the Office of Juvenile Affairs and naming Tim Gatz as director of the Department of Transportation.
He has not yet named appointees for leadership positions at the Department of Corrections, Oklahoma Health Care Authority, and Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.
Stitt said the DHS position may be one of the most consequential staffing decisions he makes as governor.
“This was one of the most important hires that I needed to make in the state,” Stitt said. “There’s about 7,000 employees in this department. They handle adult protective services. They handle the food stamps benefits, developmental disabilities, and then what we all think about DHS—it also handles our most vulnerable, our young people, our children that are in tough situations. As so if we get this right, it is a game-changer for generations to come.”
Brown said he had not considered serving until the last two months, but believes citizens must be willing to step up to solve the state’s major problems.
“If you have something that you want to change, you have to stand up and engage with it,” Brown said. “Today it’s an honor to stand up with my family and raise our hands and say, ‘We’re here. It’s our time. And we’re happy to serve.’”
DHS has had a long and troubled history, and the 2012 voter reforms were driven by controversies tied to the agency’s handling of abused children and a related class-action lawsuit. As part of the settlement of that lawsuit, the state embarked on the Pinnacle Plan, which outlined targets for improvement that have been monitored by outside experts. Stitt noted the most recent progress report showed DHS is “moving in the right direction” on 29 of 31 Pinnacle Plan objectives.
Moving forward, Brown said there’s “a lot of technological improvement” needed at the agency.
“We’ve got to build a set of systems and processes that really manage all of the folks that come through our agency,” Brown said, “and that means we also have to build technology to sort of track those people.”
Stitt noted about 8,000 children are currently in state care. Those children’s lives will be forever altered—and perhaps even saved—based on how well DHS is run.
“It was a big decision,” Stitt said. “This is life-changing for the state of Oklahoma.”