Feature

Growing up in tiny, rural LaGrange, Tenn., Page Walley, PhD, appreciated his small town's charm. Later, as a young psychologist in West Virginia, he enjoyed providing one-on-one service in small clinics. Now, Walley uses that same personal focus in his new job--overseeing a work force 25 times bigger than the population of his hometown.

As commissioner of the Alabama Department of Human Resources, a position he took on in January, Walley runs the state's largest government agency--with 4,300 employees and a $1.2 billion annual budget. He ensures that it effectively provides an array of services that promote family stability and self-sufficiency for Alabama's 4.5 million residents. The department handles everything from food stamps to day-care licensing to child-abuse investigations--essentially, Walley says, "the entire spectrum of life. If someone has vulnerabilities, we are the agency in charge of providing help."

As a psychologist, Walley is unique in this position, which he says is traditionally given to career politicians. But his background has its advantages.

"When I was going through my initial days in the work force," he says, "I determined that what I did as a psychologist was to help people alter expectations, learn new skills and solve problems. And I think that's what I do here."

A background in public service

Long before having such insights, Walley understood psychology's power to help people. His hometown of LaGrange, 55 miles east of Memphis, had a population of fewer than 150 and not even a stoplight. But it did have the nearby Western Mental Health Institute, which provided psychiatric services to the rural area and needed jobs to LaGrange.

Inspired by Western's public-focused service, Walley earned a doctorate in clinical psychology from the University of Georgia in 1984. He worked as a clinical director for the next several years in four small mental health centers--often in sparse, rural areas of the South--that were like Western: small, multifaceted facilities with limited staff who possessed jack-of-all-trades knowledge.

"You had to be a generalist," Walley said of his experiences in places like Potomac Highlands Mental Health Center in tiny Petersburg, W.Va. "It required coordinating with local courts, schools and law enforcement to deal with a range of issues, from school behavior problems to severe psychopathology to referrals for substance abuse. It was a real grab bag."

While providing these services, Walley had a revelation: "I constantly ran into the reality that the services we provided and how we provided them were controlled by the state legislature," he says. "The changes I hoped to see were more dependent on decisions being made at the state policy level than they were by mental health advocates like myself, so I felt a good role for me would be in the public policy arena advocating for health and human services."

With a political background consisting of some political science courses he took for fun during graduate school, the self-described introvert ran for the Tennessee state legislature in 1990 as a Republican in his largely Democratic native district against a popular 16-year incumbent, Rob Stallings. But Walley was a local commodity--he was even a high school football star--who shone in a region where the big employer was a mental institution. "My background was seen as an attribute," he says. Walley won the election by 220 votes.

He spent the next decade serving five terms as a state representative in Nashville, where he supported psychological services by sponsoring a mental health parity law, chairing a committee to improve the state's foster care system and creating Tennessee's Department of Children's Services. He ultimately switched from a legislator to an administrator, becoming that department's commissioner and overseeing its 4,100 employees and $550 million budget.

"The administrative field presented a greater opportunity to have the impact I wanted," Walley said. "It gave me the focus to home in on the interests and expertise that I had."

Making model programs

Walley's experience in Tennessee made him a natural fit in Alabama's Department of Children's Affairs, which he took over in March 2003. After 10 months as its commissioner, overseeing child development programs such as Head Start, Walley moved to Human Resources, where his psychology skills, as much as his legislative background, help him manage the challenges that surface in the state's biggest agency.

The new job involves departmental responsibilities that extend beyond just children's needs. Walley tackles the enormous yet daily task of supporting hundreds of thousands of people, from protecting elderly people who are abused or neglected to supporting Alabama's 6,000 foster children, half-million food-stamp recipients, quarter-million child-support recipients and 46,000 families in the Temporary Assistance of Needy Families program.

"It's group problem-solving," he says. "It requires a lot of professionalism and quality oversight."

To meet those requirements, Walley uses innovative methods. For the system's foster-care children, he supports independent, volunteer quality-assurance committees in each of Alabama's 67 counties that review foster-child cases to ensure the department achieves its goals of permanent placement. The increased communication helps Alabama's legislature, which recently gave the Human Resources department an extra $13 million for child services.

Walley has also used money received from tobacco settlements to fund preventative programming, and he tracked how quickly the department developed service plans for each child.

Moreover, Alabama just received a $250,000 grant from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a nonprofit organization that fosters human-service reform, to evaluate its mental health, senior and other human-delivery services and address how to help its 47,000 residents still dependent on welfare.

Walley's department also requires residential-care facilities to bid for state licensure based on their outcomes history--evidence that the organizations can successfully provide care. The department purchases a facility's services based on what programming the facility will provide, not just the number of beds it can offer.

Walley's perspective helps make him an innovative leader, says Michael Sullivan, PhD, assistant executive director for state advocacy in APA's Practice Directorate.

"The benefit of psychologists involved in the political process is the opportunity they have, as insiders, to shape public policy from an informed psychological perspective," says Sullivan, who knows Walley through his decade-long work with APA's State Leadership Conference--which Walley has attended more often than any other state government official. "This is a chance to make a difference in policies that affect thousands of people's lives."

Sullivan also notes Walley's service as political mentor to other psychologists, such as assisting current U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) when he started his political career in Pennsylvania's state legislature several years ago.

"He listens perceptively and sympathetically, and he can relate to people in an astute and caring way," Sullivan says of Walley.

And Walley has others taking notes. "We regularly get calls from other states on how to run an effective child welfare system," he says. In fact, his model has been used by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services for its child welfare programs. "Alabama will be a national model for its child welfare system and adult protective services."

With so many ideas, Walley is excited about his department's future. But he remains committed to providing the personal care--especially to children--that has marked his career. "The greatest reward," he says, "is seeing the good that comes from being able to place a child in a safe, loving home."