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Inane argument doesn't detract from civil service reform

I will be charitable – Louisiana’s state bureaucracy does not have the greatest reputation for quality of service or efficiency, and a reason for that perhaps was revealed by the number of civil service employees or their representatives that whined in front of the State Civil Service Commission recently about changes to introduce more merit considerations into their jobs.

The Commission is contemplating rules changes in part under pressure from Gov. Bobby Jindal and Legislature who says they’ll otherwise do it for them. While several changes are in the offing, the one generating the lion’s share of controversy is one that would alter the regulations regarding reductions in force (RIF) and other matters when layoff must occur at an agency. Presently seniority is the paramount consideration under two of three plans and is widely used on those occasions while the proposed alteration would make categorical grading of a few years of job evaluations primary and mandatory (there is a five-category scale of which the top three are considered to constitute acceptable performance).

This sounds perfectly reasonable, if not standard practice in other states. At the federal level, for example, four factors are used for RIF of which seniority is just one of equals. But in addition to this, performance scores at the federal level actually are used to add in extra RIF service credit that add seniority. In other words, better performance adds seniority, a feature not present in Louisiana’s civil service. Conceptually, there is little difference between what the SCSC proposes as its sole policy and the guiding philosophy behind RIF regulations at the federal level.

Yet in its hearing on the proposals, you would have thought from the rhetoric of some employees plus that of the usual suspects such as labor unions representatives and lawyers specializing in defending disciplinary and discharge actions against civil servants – and even the employee-elected member of the SCSC Angola Warden Burl Cain – that the change was going to gut the entire concept of a protected civil service. The main impetus behind the creation of these systems is to promote merit and reduce the amount of politics in the public personnel process. (Reduce, not eliminate – as, first, a degree holder of and, then, a teacher of public administration, and as a state employee in different systems for nearly a quarter century, I can rattle off all sorts of strategies to get around merit considerations.) These critics asserted the whole system would be subverted by an infusion of politics from the change.

It’s difficult to begin to dismantle such piffle, not because it is so lacking in logic and fact, but because sheer scope of its inanity. As near as can be gleaned from such unsophisticated ranting, allowing merit to be used in RIF situations rather than the merit-less concept of seniority constitutes political interference that will detract from merit. The shifting sand on which this argument appears to be based is that the categorical evaluation gradations now used can somehow be manipulated so thoroughly that managers will, as the primary concern in the performance reviews they conduct, be looking forward to potential RIF situations down the road and using evaluations as a tool to get rid of politically undesirable employees. Does this really need any further explanation of its lack of credibility?

Making the contention even more ludicrous is these same reviews are now part of the process of determining seniority. After the probationary period, a series of bad reviews can result in discharge or other disciplinary measures. What’s to prevent the use of them at present in a political fashion, to give adequate reviews to those politically favored, or to punish those with unacceptable reviews who are out of political favor? If you are going to argue the tools to determine quality of employees can be used politically in a future scenario, you must argue the same in the present.

And to add to the sheer stupidity of the argument, the current third plan than can be used for layoffs already puts merit as the primary consideration, so nothing new is being suggested here. Why haven’t there been and aren’t now complaints about this option being writhen with politics, if the opponents truly believed in or even had a serious argument? If this inability to critically think is widespread in Louisiana’s civil service, we are in a lot more trouble than I suspected.

What they should be complaining about, then, is the current process. But they don’t because these few bad apples’ motives are to maintain a structure that allows for a maximum of compensation and job security for a minimum of effort, an insult to taxpayers who deserve a system that promotes quality and efficiency. The present system provides incentive to slide on through, knowing that seniority alone insulates from job performance in times of RIF, and the disincentive for productivity growing every day that passes.

The many quality employees in Louisiana’s civil service should applaud this new standard. Now, their superior performances will be rewarded with more job security, instead of them living with the threat of worse-performing colleagues but who managed to get hired first given preference in RIF situations. And taxpayers specifically and citizens in general also should be pleased, for service will improve and taxes spent more efficiently as greater incentive for better performance is created.

Hopefully, the majority of the SCSC will give the credit that is due to this nonsense opposition and approve this and other changes to the regulations at its next meeting. Louisiana deserves it.


James S said...

Agree with much of what you say but shouldn't you issue a disclaimer about being a benficiary of the noble tenure system?

Tommy D. said...