Fixing Civil Service in Massachusetts John P. O’Leary Former Chairman, Massachusetts Civil Service Commission
2 0 0 4 B e t t e r G o v e r n m e n t C o m p e t i t i o n
C0-WINNER THE PROBLEM “The only thing more destructive than a line item budget system is a personnel system built around civil service.” —David Osborne and Ted Gaebler, Reinventing Government The civil service system in Massachusetts is in crisis. Created in the 19th century to solve 19th-century problems, civil service laws were an attempt to end the corruption, patronage, and cronyism that dominated American government in the late 1800s. These laws worked admirably for quite some time, but today they are in desperate need of a major overhaul. As they currently stand, the civil service laws represent a significant barrier to efficient government operation in both state and local government. Civil service laws were designed to serve two main functions. First, they establish a set of exams that test the merit of both new hires and promotional candidates. Second, they protect public employees from arbitrary dismissal, discipline, and provide layoff seniority for public employees. There are two major problems with the civil service system today. ! First, for non-public safety employees, the hiring and testing systems are totally defunct, yet the laws are still written as if tests are being given on a regular basis. The result is that 14,000 of some 30,000 state civil service positions are filled by “provisional” employees, that is, employees who have never taken an exam and are working in violation of the civil service laws. There is a similarly large provisional population at the local level. This enormous population of provisional employees, which exists in a bizarre legal vacuum, makes managing personnel extremely difficult, especially in times of reorganization or downsizing. Also, in the absence of tests, there are virtually no checks and balances in place to ensure that patronage-based hiring is not common practice. ! Second, for public safety employees, where tests are regularly given, the concept of merit has been supplanted by a system of political preferences. The result is that for new hires, the test score has little or no bearing on where his or her name will appear on the hiring list. On a recent civil service exam for the Boston Police, 492 applicants scored 95 or above. Incredibly, only one of these 492 top scorers landed in the first 75 positions on the hiring list. (For promotional exams within public safety, civil service testing works tolerably well, for reasons discussed below.) The Massachusetts civil service laws currently represent a significant barrier to efficient government operation in both state and local government. They are in desperate need of a major overhaul. Pioneer Institute – Better Government 6 Competition #13 1) The Scope of the Provisional Problem No one knows precisely how many employees are covered by civil service law. In part, this is because there is no centralized database for municipal positions. No one outside of Chicopee, for instance, knows whether the cafeteria worker in the Chicopee schools holds a permanent civil service position, a provisional civil service appointment, or an exempt or seasonal position. A 1996 legislative commission estimated that there were 70,000 “permanent” municipal civil service employees and an additional 30,000 “provisional” municipal employees. The 1996 Commission also estimated that there were 12,000 “permanent” state civil service employees and 16,500 “provisional” state civil service employees.1 All told, that comes to an estimated 46,500 provisionals out of a total civil service population of 128,500 employees, or 36 percent provisionals. In 2004, the state Human Resources Division (HRD), which oversees the administration of both state and local civil service testing and hiring, estimates that there are 30,000 civil service positions in the executive branch of state government, of which 16,000 are held by “permanent” employees and 14,000 by “provisional” hires. Thus, HRD currently estimates that among the state workforce, some 46 percent of employees in civil service positions did not take a test for their position, and many haven’t taken an exam for any position. (The picture is muddied further in that an individual may test into a position as an Administrative Assistant I, and then be “provisionally” promoted to Administrative Assistant II. Such an employee is both a provisional and “owns” the lower civil service title.) By law, a provisional appointee is only allowed to serve in that position for one year. This law is universally ignored, mostly out of necessity. The fact is, the state HRD has stopped testing for non-public safety positions entirely. In 2003, the state Human Resources Division gave exactly one non-public safety exam, an exam for municipal custodians. So anyone looking to hire or promote an accountant, an administrative assistant, a database programmer, a soil chemist, a barber, or any one of thousands of other job titles had to do so provisionally. Why won’t HRD give these exams? Two reasons. First, the budget and staffing of HRD in this area has been dramatically reduced. In 1996, there were approximately 38 full-time staff dedicated to testing and maintaining certification lists. In 2004, there are twelve. The second reason is not specific to Massachusetts. The testing system simply can’t keep pace with the reality of the modern professional work environment. With hundreds of job titles and rapidly shifting job responsibilities, the very notion of testing is rather silly. Three states—Florida, Georgia, and Texas—have recently done away with civil service testing altogether for non-public safety positions, and more are looking into it. The huge provisional population wreaks havoc in a system geared around a testingbased regime. The Civil Service Commission receives hundreds of appeals each year, which are based, ultimately, in the fact that absent these tests managers still need to promote, reorganize, layoff, and otherwise manage their workforce. Efforts are constantly made to “make permanent” those provisional employees who have been performing for years in a given position. 1 The Report of the 1996 Legislative Task Force on Civil Service Reform.
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