A half-century has elapsed since a long forgotten American Public Information Officer in Viet Nam declared, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it.” The sheer lunacy of his remark has survived, however, as the premier example of bureaucratic policy run amuck. Democratic governments, which can only be held accountable in the final analysis by voters, have proven particularly susceptible to the seductions of groupthink enthusiasms. These fevers rarely originate internally, but, rather, they tend to be transmitted as infections germinated by legislators.
The risks to rational governance have only grown as a result of term limits. Prior to 1998, long serving committee chairs in the Colorado Legislature routinely established close, respectful personal relationships with senior civil servants. Together, they would design, fund and implement far-sighted public policy agendas for highways, schools, wildlife management, land use and the host of other civic responsibilities shouldered by state government. Coherent, long range strategies could be crafted that would respond to the predictable pressures of demographic and economic growth. Governors routinely chafed at these partnerships, premised on shared priorities between legislators and the state’s civil service.
Departmental appointees to cabinet positions resented the relative independence of a constitutionally protected and merit based civil service that felt confident enough to push back against their more half-baked policy proposals. Consequently, nearly every Governor has attempted to curb the influence of these civil servants by expanding the number of political appointees they are authorized to slide into each agency. This power grab has usually been dressed up as ‘civil service reform’ — but, in reality, it always extended a Governor’s power to swiftly enforce his or her policy priorities.
A dozen times in the ninety years since Colorado voters established a merit based civil service to replace a political patronage system that produced a revolving door for the hiring and firing of political cronies, Governors have returned to the ballot asking voters to overturn all or parts of the personnel provisions in the Colorado constitution. Each time, they failed. Now that John Hickenlooper is up to bat the vocabulary has changed. Reform has been dressed up as the “modernization” of the state’s antiquated civil service rules. Make no mistake; this is the same expansion of executive control rejected in the past. This time, however, the proposal enjoys puzzling support from both legislators and the remnants of what was once a unified state employees’ organization.
Privately, the administration argues this is a necessary first step in their long game strategy to persuade voters to approve new revenue (taxes) for a state government that is inexorably shrinking in size under the pressure of TABOR spending restrictions. Only by demonstrating their hard headed readiness to cuff state workers around the head and shoulders with pay cuts, layoffs (they’re coming) and pension pinching do they feel voters can be convinced to provide additional dollars. They may be right, though I sincerely doubt there are many taxpayers who think Colorado’s budget problems are directly attributable to a greedy state work force.
Blaming the help provides, of course, a convenient smokescreen for hiding two decades of failed executive and legislative leadership. Stripping state workers of their constitutional protections doesn’t provide much needed flexibility to managers as much as it puts the competent, non-partisan workforce envisioned by Colorado voters in 1918 at risk. The number of political appointees in the Senior Executive Service is scheduled to triple, including departmental human resource managers, who can then work in tandem with departmental directors to steer hiring and promotions to favorites as the number of eligible candidates is expanded from the top three to the top six applicants. Competitive exams will be replaced with ‘comparative’ measures that will ostensibly be linked to unspecified objective criteria. Creative managers are currently tailoring job descriptions to favor preferred candidates. This “end around” can only get worse. By any objective measure, advancement within the civil service will become more subjective.
Bumping rights for long serving employees will be limited to those within five years of retirement during layoffs or reorganizations, which may sound compassionate, but, upon closer inspection, turns out to only apply to employees eligible within five years of the bill’s effective date in 2013. Five years after that, every state worker will be serving in an “at will” environment where they can be threatened with a reorganization that moves them out the door. This Governor may not abuse that authority, but voters cannot assume similar restraint from future administrations. Inevitably, Colorado’s civil service will grow more responsive to the priorities of partisan agendas advanced by either the right or the left, and for better or worse.
I might feel better about all this, if a former City Council member hadn’t recounted to me a comment made several years ago by then Mayor Hickenlooper when Denver was considering reforms to its own Career Service system. His assessment of the Denver workforce was captured in a quip that, ‘…we know, if they had anything on the ball they probably wouldn’t be working for us.’ It’s hard to believe that Governor Hickenlooper holds any higher regard for the competence and capability of the state’s workforce. As one of his appointees observed, “Given the choice between a career employee who understands the history and moving parts of government or a dot.com millionaire whose only real management experience has been to cash in stock options, who would you guess this Governor thinks should be running state government?”
The question answers itself. The legislative piece of modernization seems certain to pass with bi-partisan support. Few members on either side of the aisle have served long enough to develop a heartfelt admiration for the dedication, ability and wisdom of state workers. Sadly, there is no political payoff in rushing to their defense. Come November, Colorado voters would be smart to think long and hard before they approve reforms to a reform that has served them well for nearly a century.
Miller Hudson was executive director of the Colorado Association of Public Employees (CAPE) until Gov. Bill Ritter launched a labor/management partnership with Colorado WINS. He currently is a public affairs specialist.