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Marketa Garner Walters, secretary of the Louisiana Department of Children and Family Services, speaks Wednesday, August 22, 2018, at the Immaculate Heart of Mary hall in Lafayette. The visit was part of a statewide tour to hold community conversations on child welfare and poverty issues.

All too often in an election year, we hear that government should be run like a business.

And all too often, we don’t unpack all the conflicting realities represented in that statement.

If that means efficiency in day-to-day operations, that makes a lot of sense. And one way that government often lags is in technology, because it’s not politically sexy to spend millions upon millions to upgrade computers and train staff — the way businesses do all the time.

There are happy exceptions: In Congress, U.S. Rep. Garret Graves, R-Baton Rouge, has pushed for a more consumer-friendly and cost-effective approach, particularly for the Federal Emergency Management Agency that Louisiana families turn to for help when hurricanes strike.

But government isn’t a business, in part because its time horizon for payoff of its investments is much longer than that of the private sector.

An example drawn from government work that enjoys almost universal support across the political spectrum: foster parenting and adoption.

Despite the many and valuable contributions of churches and nonprofit organizations, the problems of dysfunctional families often require a commitment from government.

It is time-consuming and legally difficult for an agency to become involved with the lives of young people, who may be neglected or abused. Although agencies, public or nonprofit, will do what they can to keep families together, sometimes that is simply not in the interest of children.

Identifying and supporting a quality foster home for children in crisis falls principally on the state Department of Children and Family Services. Its investments in that process are just the kind of critical long-term commitments that a private business simply is not equipped to make.

But what is more important?

The agency was left in a mess by budget cuts in the administration of former Gov. Bobby Jindal, but some money has been restored under Gov. John Bel Edwards. Some of its tottering vehicles have been replaced, but its computer systems still need a lot of work.

And these are investments, those that reflect a business sense. But the payoff is down the road.

Similarly, we heard often this year of the importance of early childhood education and the need for Louisiana’s investments in programs for the youngest of our citizens. The long-term payoff from those programs is acclaimed by economists.

In DCFS cases, even more expensive interventions involve children orphaned or separated from their parents for other reasons.

When the agency is a success, there is a real payoff.

In the 2019 federal fiscal year, which ended Sept. 30, 893 children were adopted from foster care in Louisiana. That does not include the much larger number of children who are supported by the agency and its numerous nonprofit partners who have embarked on a multiyear project to help foster families and provide a path to adulthood that leads to healthier and happier lives.

DCFS and Secretary Marketa Garner Walters have received national recognition for this work.

No business takes on a complex and challenging issue like this, when the payoff is far down the road. But like many other things that government does, Louisiana needs long-term investments in its future dividends, not least the smiling faces of the young who become part of a loving home.

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.

Our Views: Damning audit of children services

Email Lanny Keller at lkeller@theadvocate.com.