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Tom Watkins
Tom Watkins

The Future of Public Policy

March 9, 2018 

The past few weeks have witnessed the departure of many notable and impactful people from the public scene. Former women’s rights advocate and state representative, Maxine Berman, Lansing lawmaker, Burton Leland, and radio host, Cliff Russell.


Former Michigan State Represenative, State Senator and Wayne County Commissoner, Burton Leland a social workers with a political district as his caseload.

Former State Represenative Maxine Berman a champion for women’s rights


Media Guru, Radio host, former Dennis Archer’s communication director and mentor to many, Cliff Russell

Each of their passing has hit me hard as reminders of their tireless work for the people of Michigan. They left their mark on me in both simple and profound ways – Michigan is better for their passing through our lives.  No doubt, heaven becomes a bit livelier as they enter the ‘pearly gates’.

Their passing has made me re-think the many challenges that lie ahead for policymakers at every level of government.

I have been around the block myself a time or two in leadership roles with the government, education, and the private sector in Michigan. Reflecting on the lives of these 3 servant-leaders, I am convinced now – more than ever – that we need bold leadership.

Not simply to survive but to thrive. The days of pretending to fix problems needs to end: one need only drive on a Michigan road to understand the absurdity of pretending to fix problems.

Michigan, we have a problem

In fact, a number of serious problems need to be addressed in the state. Let me touch briefly on a couple: behavioral health and education/workforce preparedness

I have witnessed the public community mental health system unfold, in one capacity or another, for the past 40 out of 53 years that it has existed since President John F. Kennedy signed the Community Mental Health Act of 1963.

I have been a therapist, program coordinator, director of a local CMH agency, deputy director of administration and chief deputy and director of the former Michigan Department of Mental Health under Governor Blanchard. After four years as President and CEO, leading the transition from the former Wayne County Community Mental Health Agency to the Detroit Wayne Mental Health Authority (DWMHA), I resigned last August to re-engage with my other passions: China, education, and business.

Talent Matters!

Nothing is more important than preparing our youth for their future and not our past.  Globalization, automation, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and China are taking center stage as the 21st century unfolds. How we retrain our workforce and educate our youth will determine our place in the world. This is challenging, rewarding work that we must invest our minds, souls, talent, and resources in if we wish to remain relevant on the world stage.

These past few years, I have attempted to sound a wake-up call for our state by writing about these very issues. The trepidation and hope that I hold for the future of education and workforce preparedness in our state have been captured in these articles:

Behavioral Health

Yet, as I reflect back on my career in behavioral health, I see slow progress and trouble on the horizon without strong leadership and advocacy.  There is a need for greater clarity around a shared vision and common agenda for quality mental health services in Michigan and across America.

I have established and modified a set of guiding principles that I used while leading large, complex organizations in pre-K-12, higher education, business, government and non-profit sectors. As the saying goes, if you don’t know where you are going, any path will take you there.

These guiding principles provide a roadmap to follow that help add value to make a difference: They provide a foundation upon which our system of care should be developed going forward.  These guiding principles say that we exist to serve and support individuals with mental illness, developmental disabilities and substance use disorders. Everything we do should be directed toward that end. As leaders and service providers, let’s always ask ourselves:  ‘How do our actions help the people we are committed to serving?’ We need to ask, “Is our system of care leading with this goal in mind?“

The improvements the DWMHA team made to both operations and service are remarkable, universally acknowledged. I expounded upon and laid out the challenges that lie ahead in a Dome Magazine article last year entitled, Change, Adapt or Die. Numerous national recognition, awards, and documentaries that DWMHA produced can also be found in their Annual Report.

I expect the new CEO, Willie Brook, his board and dedicated staff and provider network will take the organization, and more importantly, the 80,000 vulnerable lives they serve, to even greater heights.

With changes coming at healthcare in general and behavioral health at warp speed, it is even more important that policymakers have clear principles to adhere to as they make changes that fundamentally impact people’s lives.

As I articulated in articles written over the past few years, the citizens of Michigan need to be on guard about the push to “profitize” public mental health services, turning management over to the profit-making insurance companies.

I touched on those fears and about what lay ahead in these 2016 articles,  Mental Health Advocates Rise Up, The Sky Is Not Falling, Gov. Snyder moves to privatize mental health services in latest budget proposal and The Future of Behavioral Health.

As celebrated anthropologist Margaret Mead reminded us, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has”.

Today, as we set about creating the future, we need to BE the change we want to see in the world – indeed, Berman, Leland, and Russell did their bit and Michigan and the world is a better place because of their efforts.

The only question left to ask of those still working in the policy arena is, “Will we?” The stakes are high.

Somehow, I think Maxine Berman, Burton Leland, and Cliff Russell are in heaven with a scorecard – keeping track of how we are doing. They certainly helped protect “the least among us.”

Now it is our turn to keep their legacy alive.

Tom Watkins has served the citizens of Michigan as state superintendent of schools and state mental health director. He is engaged in education and business develop in be US and China. He can be emailed at:, or followed on twitter at:@tdwatkins88


March 8, 2018 · Filed under Tom Watkins

2 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Ken Beedle // Mar 9, 2018 at 7:33 am

    Pay attention Michigan! Leadership and teamwork matter.

  • 2 Mary // Mar 10, 2018 at 9:05 am

    Keep telling the truth about what needs to happen to make Michigan a better place,

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