Apr 19, 2022 - News

Behind the hiring of a Texas mental health programming director

Illustration of the Texas State Capitol with lines radiating from it.

Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

When officials at the Texas Health and Human Services Commission were hiring a new director for mental health programming last year, they evaluated ten candidates, nine of whom worked in the field.

Driving the news: But the chief experience of the person who got the job was working in the office of Gov. Greg Abbott, where he was director of the criminal justice division, per records obtained by Axios through public records requests.

Why it matters: Texas ranked last out of all 50 states and the District of Columbia for overall access to mental health care, according to the 2021 State of Mental Health in America report.

The big picture: It's not unusual for governors' aides to fan out and become agency officers.

  • And it can work to the agency's benefit — a connected political player in its ranks can help position the agency for more money from the Texas Legislature, for example. 
  • It also can give the governor a key lever on the inside of an agency.
  • "Plenty of testifying legislative experience, many subcommittees," Reilly Webb, who got the job, said in one of his interviews. "I am not a stranger to proposed legislation and lawmakers."

Yes, but: Good governance groups say the arrangements mean the best people in the field can be shut out of important policy jobs.

  • Speaking generally, Adrian Shelley, director of the Texas office of Public Citizen, told Axios hiring that favors "loyalty ... over professional qualifications" leads to "weak agencies that don't live up to their mission to serve the public."
  • Of note: Axios saw no evidence that the governor's office was directly involved in Webb's winning the job, other than serving as a reference.

What they're saying: In one of his job interviews, Webb said his experience at the criminal justice division prepared him for his new job because "one of my staff sat on the behavioral health coordinating council" and the criminal justice system serves "as the default response" for behavioral health issues — as well as working on drug courts and drug initiatives.

By the numbers: Webb got the highest cumulative score among the ten people evaluated by commission staff — though one of the four interviewers didn't score him in the top five.

  • Evaluators also noted his contracting know-how from his previous job as grant director at the HHSC, his experience overseeing large teams and the top marks from his current and past supervisors, attesting to his command of complex issues.
  • "After a rigorous, competitive selection process, [Webb] quickly emerged as the top candidate for the job based on his extensive grant and contracting experience (including prior employment at HHSC) and his history administering health related programs throughout Texas, all of which are core functions of the program area he leads," Bishop told Axios.
  • Of note: Webb was one of two men among those evaluated.

He was selected for the position on Oct. 1, 2021, at a salary of $125,000.

The other side: "Knowing that someone without a mental health background is in this position is concerning," one of the other candidates for the job told Axios.

  • The person requested anonymity because they still work in the field.
  • "The selected candidate’s background suggests connections were more valuable than the experience necessary to address the system’s challenges. I feel my time and efforts were wasted and that I and others were merely token candidates to give the illusion of an objective selection process," they said.

Zoom out: Since Webb got the job, the in-state answer rate of the National Suicide Lifeline has increased from 37% to 46%, according to HHSC spokesperson Ty Bishop.

  • Webb has also overseen the release of federal COVID relief money for needy families with dependent children who have mental health illness, intellectual or developmental disability or substance use disorder and those who were impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Bishop said the agency adheres to federal employment discrimination law in its hiring practices.
  • The state agency declined Axios' interview offer to Webb.

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