Guest Columns

NESBITT: PROPOSALS INCREASE THE FLEXIBILITY OF THE SYSTEM

Modernizing personnel system supports state workers and the people of Colorado

GUEST COLUMNIST

In his April 6 guest column in The Colorado Statesman, Miller Hudson asserts that Colorado voters should “think long and hard” before they approve proposed changes to a State personnel system “that has served them well for nearly a century.” While we agree with him wholeheartedly on the importance of a sound personnel system, it is a disservice to the dedicated public servants who work for the State to let sentimentality impede the progress necessary to deliver effective, efficient and elegant service to the people of Colorado. The State’s personnel system has undergone few significant changes since it was created in 1920. Just as technology has evolved from an era of switchboard phones to personal handheld devices, the Colorado Constitution needs to be updated to allow the State’s workforce to keep pace with the work environment of the 21st Century.

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Our proposals increase the flexibility of the personnel system, enabling the State to achieve the best outcomes and deliver the best customer experiences. Colorado is one of only 15 states in which the personnel system is tied to the state constitution, and one of only four with comprehensive rules in the constitution.

We believe that taxpayer money should be used to hire the best candidate for the job. The current system requires applicants for jobs in the State personnel system to be hired based on competitive testing and thus favors people who are good test-takers — not necessarily those who are most qualified. The Talent Agenda, as we call the proposal, helps ensure that the best candidate is hired by allowing for an objective comparative analysis of desired qualifications defined by the hiring authority. This could include criteria such as judgment, demeanor and other factors that are difficult to assess through a written test.

The current personnel rules only allow hiring managers to consider the top three highest scoring applicants for a job. If none of those candidates are a good fit, current rules direct the hiring authority to wait six months to repost the position and fill that vacancy. The proposed improvements do away with the six-month waiting period and allow twice as many applicants to be considered.

As Hudson explained, the Talent Agenda does increase the number of positions exempt from the classified system — modernizing our personnel system by allowing additional flexibility in hiring some senior executive service (SES) and other specified employees. However, it won’t triple the number as he stated. The number of staff exempted would not exceed 1 percent of the classified personnel system. This enables future department heads to appoint their immediate staff, better ensuring a positive work environment, shared values, and greater degree of hiring flexibility, responsiveness and accountability. Moreover, all individuals currently in these select positions would be grandfathered in and retain their classified status.

The Talent Agenda also incorporates a merit pay system based upon employees’ performance and placement within the salary range. Available monies will be distributed to one or more priority groups of employees as determined by the state personnel director.

Instead of adding “preference points” to the passing test scores of veterans who served during war time and only allowing them to use those points once, the Talent Agenda would allow unlimited use. This more meaningfully acknowledges our veterans for their commitment to our country and State.

The Talent Agenda limits the ability for the State’s Personnel Board members to serve in perpetuity, instead requiring reasonable limits of two 3-year terms. It also limits any sitting Governor to making only two of the three gubernatorial appointments to the board, so that no single Governor’s appointees will ever have a majority of the influence on the five-person board. This change makes board members more accountable to both state employees and to the people of Colorado.

The proposed changes also phase out the disruptive practice known as “bumping,” in which employees who lose their job are permitted to displace less senior employees in the State personnel system. This practice is bad for both the organization and the employee, leading to non-optimal staffing assignments that are ineffective and often result in turnover. Hudson is correct that bumping will no longer be available to any employee who is not within five years of retirement, but State employees will remain protected by civil service rules.

Indeed, while all working Coloradans not covered by collective bargaining agreements are subject to the “at will” environment Hudson describes, State employees are afforded additional protections under the personnel system — and the Talent Agenda does not remove those protections.

Improving a 92-year-old system is hardly an “attempt to curb the influence of civil servants” as Hudson alleges. The Talent Agenda is the best way to ensure that our workforce is supported by rules that value institutional knowledge, accountability, achieving the best outcomes and delivering the best customer service to the people of Colorado. We think that being the leader in service excellence is worth striving for, and these common sense reforms will help us achieve that vision.

Kathy Nesbitt is the director of the Colorado Department of Personnel & Administration.