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Reform and the Government Worker


As the rest of the world becomes more keenly competitive,America's 87,000 state and local governments lag years behind the times in how they motivate, hire, promote and fire their 15.5 million employees.

For the safety of our drinking water, education of our children, policing of our communities, public health, highways and much more, we all depend intimately on state and local government workers. Yet the national future could be threatened if states and bTC localities keep postponing dramatic personnel reform.

That's the warning flare sent up last month in a report by the two-year-old National Commission on the State and Local Public Service, headed by the former governor of Mississippi, William Winter.

"Governments operate antiquated and obsolete personnel, procurement and budget systems. They fail to invest in the most critical resource they have: their rank-and-file personnel," said the 27-member commission based at the Rockefeller Institute at the State University of New York in Albany. But after describing "a system undergoing death by a thousand paper cuts," the group of former elected officials, agency heads, scholar-experts and journalists tried to pick up the clues of the best experiments around the nation and suggest what could be done.

The list merits attention. Anytime a state or local official identifies lack of money as the only problem, ask if any of these reforms have been tried:

* "Flatten" bureaucracies by reducing the number of management layers between the top and bottom of agencies. Cut way back on the ranks of managers who remain. Some of government's most egregious costs -- and resistance to reform -- come from bloated middle management. Smart corporations, to survive, have been cutting back left and right on mid-level management. Governments need to do the same.

* Break hidebound civil-service rules by curbing the use of seniority, veterans' preference and potentially biased, outdated testing rules to pick people for government jobs. Cut back on job classifications (New York state, for example, has a preposterous 7,300). Merit systems were invented a century ago, the commission said, "to recruit the most talented among our citizens into government." They were not invented "to employ legions of classification experts and personnel administrators who spend their days tracking bumping routes and rewriting job descriptions."

* Reform firing rules. Often government managers are so stymied by burdensome civil-service rules that they promote poor performers into new, useless jobs rather than go through torturous termination proceedings. Managers should be given free rein on firings as long as they adhere to basic requirements of law.

* Think about government workers as people open to new challenges, human capital to be developed -- just as progressive private firms do. Discard the old shibboleths of civil servants as parasites interested solely in pay, benefits and pensions. Set aside at least 3 percent of payroll costs to train and retrain government employees.

* Simplify the enormously complex pay levels that have built up in government. Cut back on individual pay-for-performance plans they haven't produced good results. But adopt team-based pay-for-performance systems -- whether the team is several employees, a unit or an agency. The idea is that collective team responsibility builds accountability for excellence in service.

* Provide government workers with promising career paths. But don't handcuff them to a lifetime in government service, or lock out lateral mid-career entry into government by talented people from business and non-profit sectors. The long-term national purpose is served with free entry in and out of government, with a work force that understands both worlds.

With more hope than proof, the commission suggests state and local governments may be ready for a new era of labor-management relations in which government managers involve front-line workers, including union leadership, in decision-making processes from the start. Unions, for their part, would be expected to forsake such protective devices as a premium on seniority and overly constraining work rules.

The point is that in the long run incentives, respect and friendly challenges to our public work forces will achieve a great deal more than anti-government propaganda and crude tax revolts.

The fact is these folks work for us. The sooner we learn to see them as employees we value, instead of bureaucrats we hate, the better off we'll be.

The commission would involve citizens in problem-solving, strengthen lobbying rules and limit political fund-raising until six months before elections. There's even a fascinating suggestion that we could get rid of overlapping, competing governments through a "base-closure" approach akin to the commission method Congress now uses -- an "all-or-nothing" measure -- to deal with the politically explosive issue of cutting back military bases.

The idea of cutting back on our number of governments -- 3,000 counties, 36,000 cities and towns, 15,000 school districts, 33,000 special districts -- is refreshing and timely. One can imagine the howls of protest from entrenched officials. But it's also true that Americans' disenchantment with government is at a historic high. Our choice may be between mounting anti-government fervor and smart reforms. The commission wisely suggests we try the reforms first.

Neal R. Peirce was one of the two journalist members of the Commission on the State and Local Public Service.

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