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Evaluation results call for more rigorous expectations

State Rep. John Schroder rightly expresses skepticism about the continuing amazingly high performance level of state employees even after a change in evaluation procedures from the prior system that showed similarly high levels. It’s because little was changed, which does little to move Louisiana forward on this issue.

As previously noted in this space, much grander and more substantive reform had been offered up by the Gov. Bobby Jindal Administration. But after predictable resistance from the civil service, watered-down alterations got enacted, and in the first year of full use, in terms of statistics, the almost perfect qualified rate remained essentially unchanged, with almost no requests to fire people for low performance.

Schroder commented, “Why do evaluations if everyone is going to come out with flying colors? I’m not persuaded that almost every single employee is doing a great job.” By contrast, Director of State Civil Service Shannon Templet said they must be, for two reasons: the new protocols were more than before evaluative of tasks and that the proportion of those employees rated qualified was not significantly higher than what was found in the private sector.

Both her arguments supporting the validity of the scores as truly measuring quality, if not made disingenuously, then are too simplistic. The increased emphasis on task evaluation presupposes that the standards of task performance themselves represent adequately rigorous expectations of employees. That we saw some agencies give as many as a third of all employees the highest rating while at least one gave this to none illustrates widely divergent expectations in this regard, as chance would suggest almost never would distributions of performance go to such extremes. This has been the flaw from the start of the system before and after its tepid reform, and left unaddressed sabotages the validity of any evaluation system.

And the comparison to the private sector misleads by its apples to oranges nature. For one thing, the separation rate (voluntarily leaving) is twice as high in the private sector than public sector, meaning that many fewer government employees leave for reasons good and bad, or that there are fewer good employees in the public sector that have a chance to do better elsewhere and that in it forcing out inferior employees, which then presumably erodes the bottom part of the performance distribution that could explain its upward skew, does not happen all that often. And the national low turnover rate through firings in the private sector is five times that of the miniscule rate in the federal public sector, underscoring the difficulty in discharging for cause public sector employees because of civil service protections. That the average tenure of government employees is twice that of those in the private sector corroborates these inferences by showing that worse-performing employees can hang on to their jobs where they could not in the private sector and that there are fewer better-performing employees that have the ability to move on than in the private sector.

In other words, were the factors – fewer superior employees to begin with, more inferior ones – accurately reflected in an evaluation regime, we should expect to see the rate of qualified employees, instead of being slightly higher in Louisiana’s bureaucracy than in the privates sector – should be significantly lower. If anything, unless one unrealistically believes there’s some magic that just makes Louisiana’s bureaucrats unusually better than the norm, this comparison demonstrates not the validity of the present measurement process, but its invalidity.

Again, this leads back to the evaluative process itself and the doubts that it is done in a fashion that is rigorous enough, certainly not standardized in application. If Schroder and other policy-makers want to investigate this, they should pass a study resolution to commission a consultant to study the standards, comparing the task expectations of each task in a job (comparing job to job wouldn’t work because of the substantial variety and differences between them in the sectors, and that some public sector jobs really have no comparable positions in the private sector) for each sector. Chances are expectations are lower in Louisiana’s public sector, and so reforms would have to occur that would raise these.

Do that, and likely the state’s bureaucracy separation and turnover rates would increase and tenure decrease to closer to private sector rates. Better, spurred by this state employees should become more productive – especially given that their total compensation almost certainly exceeds that of those in the private sector with comparable job tasks – saving taxpayers money and providing improved service delivery.

Schroder is correct to question these results. He and other policy-makers should take the next step by authorizing delving into this matter in greater detail, and follow up with legislation if necessary to make corrections.

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