Guest Columns

HUDSON: MERIT-BASED CIVIL SERVICE ASSURES SMART GOVERNMENT

State bureaucrats once again dodged meaningful analysis of compensation issues

GUEST COLUMNIST

The Hickenlooper administration raised several hundred thousand dollars in order to survey state employees about their jobs. The results are now summarized on the Department of Personnel and Administration’s (DPA) website. It’s a good thing taxpayer dollars weren’t wasted on this effort. The questions read like they were dreamed up at a blissed out, New Age smoke-in. The only interesting response is the 58 percent of state workers who indicate they are seriously considering quitting during the next 12 months. This puts Colorado’s workforce in competition with the fast food industry for turnover. If the economy begins to recover next year it may prove risky to stand in the doorway of a state office building.

This is the third consecutive administration that has avoided discovering how many workers are running “bare” on health insurance. For a decade, nearly 40 percent have refused to enroll in the state health plan. The Owens’ administration attributed this failure to the fact that the state plan sucks and suggested that employees were insuring themselves through the health programs available to their working spouses. There is reason to suspect this was wishful thinking. While I served as executive director at the Colorado Association of Public Employees, our informal polling found that somewhere between a quarter and a third of state workers were actually taking their chances and skipping health insurance altogether. If true, this would have proven embarrassing at a time when state revenues were tight, so the Ritter administration simply ducked the question.

Once again, state bureaucrats have chosen to dodge a meaningful analysis of compensation issues. Far easier, apparently, to ask moronic questions like, “I have trust and confidence in my immediate supervisor?” Who cares, and what difference would the answer make either way? What about the severe salary compression that has resulted following salary freezes in nine of the last ten years? These have been administered in a way that denies raises for a worker’s length of service. New hires make the same money as the employees who train them. The state’s pay for performance system is in total shambles. Is there any wonder why a majority of state workers might have their eyes fixed on the exit?

Nonetheless, DPA has announced its intention to fiddle with the few remaining civil service rules protecting state workers. This initiative has been titled, “The Talent Agenda.” If the administration had assembled a group to deliberately select a name with the specific intention of insulting state employees, they couldn’t have done better. The message is clear: we don’t have the talent we need or want on the payroll today. When DPA Director Kathryn Nesbitt unveiled her plans to the State Personnel Board in August, at the top of her list was a waiver of the residency requirement. Apparently, despite tens of thousands of job seeking Coloradans, DPA doesn’t believe it can secure the talent it needs within our borders.

All of which makes it worthwhile to revisit why voters added a civil service system to the Colorado Constitution in the first place. What were they thinking in 1918, when the state workforce was little more than a thousand? Prior to the adoption of the state civil service system, the workforce turned over with each election as the incoming governor filled state jobs with (his) political cronies. Patronage had been running amuck for decades. When reformers passed an initiative requiring a merit based civil service, the Legislature quickly gutted its provisions restoring the spoils system they preferred. So, reformers returned to the ballot box with a Constitutional Amendment. Sound familiar?

A little research at the Denver Public Library shows the campaign was nasty and personal. Proponents attacked “political job hunters” and the “low grade politicians” who supported them. The Civil Service Reform Association was more than willing to wave the bloody shirt, declaring, “If you want our (returning) soldiers and sailors, and not the politicians, to have preference in the state service, and if you want the maximum of Public Service, at the minimum of cost, vote YES…” They carried every county in the state outside Denver, where most existing state workers resided, winning 65 percent approval for merit based hiring. Going forward, governors were expected to pursue their policy agendas through the effective management of a qualified, secure, knowledgeable and professional workforce.

Eleven times during the ensuing century governors of both parties have attempted to overturn all, or a portion, of Colorado’s constitutional civil service provisions. In each case, the sponsors have conspired to misrepresent the original purpose of the civil service system to voters. Nonetheless, each has failed. Governors routinely portray the civil service system as an obstacle to implementing their noble agendas for improving state governance — for propelling Colorado ‘to the next level.’ If only they were afforded more direct control over state workers, allowed to appoint more managers personally beholden to them, permitted more flexibility in hiring and promotion decisions within state agencies, and given more authority over compensation — well, we would all be better off, or so they would like us to believe.

In my experience state workers are usually the consummate professionals contemplated by voters in 1918 — experts who readily assist each new administration in pursuing its policy priorities. The civil service system was not created to prevent change, but to protect taxpayers against the subversion of state government on behalf of hare-brained political agendas — of the left or right. Civil service is the management tool provided by voters to assist each new administration in achieving its policy goals. At the same time it keeps Colorado’s elected
officials inside the guardrails. This concept is not outdated. It is not some strange anachronism from a distant and corrupt past. You only need contemplate the millions of protestors against corrupt and incompetent governments flooding public squares around the globe to get the message. A merit-based civil service assures smart government!

Miller Hudson served two terms in the Colorado House. He is the former executive director of Colorado Association of Public Employees.