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National Association of Counties * Washington, DC / Vol. 30, No. 10 * May 25, 1998

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Civil Service Systems Must Evolve

This is the third of three HR Doctor columns focusing on reforms needed in traditional civil service systems if they are to avoid extinction in the 21st century. The first column dealt with "merit pay" and how it has departed from the principle of rewarding excellent performance. The second dealt with the concept of "tenure" for public employees and how that has complicated the lives of managers and supervisors.

This column focuses on testing and selection.

This is the part of civil service which was most on people's minds in the late 19th century when the Pendleton Act created a federal civil service system. The ideas has always been that civil service employment should be based upon a combination of open public advertising of vacancies, tests administered to all candidates and the selection of only the best qualified persons from the resulting "eligible list."

This cornerstone of civil service, the HR Doctor will argue, has been "structured to death" - especially in larger agencies with greater numbers of employees, applicants and vacancies. Instead of being able to select the "best qualified" persons from the top of eligible lists, ironically, civil service systems sometimes force managers to make less desirable appointments from the bottom half of an eligible list. How can this be?

Part of the reason is that civil service systems are very formal. Candidates must be treated in a documented and consistent manner. It is a world of form letters, postcard notifications, test schedules, lists and records. all of these processes are very understandable from a "defensive" standpoint in a world of applicants' attorneys, discrimination charges and union grievances. However, the result is an extremely time-consuming process.

It is often the case that the best qualified candidates, in terms of knowledge, skills, and abilities, are the most competitive in the labor market and will not sit waiting by the mailbox for a civil service appointment postcard. candidates no longer interested or available will stay on eligible lists like plaque built up in an artery. Removing the names of such candidates is a complex process that can add weeks of delay.

the eligible list may also contain candidates from within the organization who are "shopping" for openings at particular work locations or departments. Nonetheless, their names are "certified" for consideration for any vacancies in the job classification. The result is that they, too, clog the eligible lists and, therefore, the selection process.

Managers become frustrated at delay and "bureaucratic" responses. Supervisors and individual employees become frustrated because vacancies can't seem to be filled, and work either goes undone or is added to the workload of other employees. the "customers" of the human resources system, whether internal agency clients or individual job applicants and members of the public, don't feel they are being served well. These feelings have prompted the nationwide search for alternatives.

Some of the alternatives include exempting more and more positions from civil service. Already many, if not most, executive positions, such as directors and assistant directors of agencies, are specifically developed as exempt from civil service. the same is true at the other end of the employment "food chain" - a greater reliance on temporary or part-time workers who are also likely to be exempt from civil service.

Agencies will attempt to exempt persons funded by grants as well as other employees who may be considered "administrative" or "professional."

A further outcome is increasing interest by elected policy makers and appointed officials to avoid these difficulties altogether by privatizing or contracting out. the greater the frustration felt by clients, the greater the risk of efforts to, in effect, abandon the 100-year old civil service model in favor of approaches which are thought to be faster, more flexible, and less frustrating.

Is this growing trend toward "extinction" good for public service? The HR Doctor feels that it is not.

In the interests of solving very legitimate problems of "over structure" and poor client relations, the lust for quick solutions may end up exposing the organization to much greater liability and much poorer personnel practices.

Things must be done to address these concerns about recruitment management. Standing still and continuing traditional practices unchanged will lead to Darwinian natural selection, rather than the best possible employee selection. Instead, HR systems must evolve. Such evolution is possible and productive for everyone concerned. What does the HR Doctor recommend?

Recognize the tendency in all bureaucracies, over time, to become more and more rigid, less flexible and less responsible. This tendency must be deliberately addressed by managers and HR directors.

Periodically, engage in a management retreat, focusing on what "bureaucracy busting" changes can result by asking a few basic questions.

Questions should include: how do we know if we are serving our customers well? Do we measure our progress in reaching goals established by elected policy makers and ourselves? For that matter, do we even have a mission statement and performance goals which are measurable and periodically reviewed?

Network and learn from others. It is easy to feel isolated if you never meet your colleagues in other local public agencies or even in your own, let alone around the country or in other parts of the world. Attend local professional association meetings and become a leader in such organizations.

It is a great way to share issues with colleagues and find out who is doing what and what common elements of problem-solving you share.

From asking simple questions like this, you could learn about joint power agreements to share resources or just learn how others respond to problems so that your own organization can profit from the results.

The HR Doctor's trips to Ireland and France, which included meeting with officials from county government, has proven to me that we share a great deal in the way of challenges and solutions.

Develop alternative approaches to traditional recruitment activities. Consider establishing college or graduate internships, exempt from civil service. Interns would learn about the organization and contribute to it. They may qualify on civil service tests and, when successful, be integrated into the regular work force.

Meanwhile, the investment in training and mentoring will reward the organization many times over with a dedicated contributor. Arrangements can be developed with local universities and be based upon an academic competition.

This can also be a fine tool in increasing workforce diversity.

Modify some traditional civil service selection thinking. Entry level jobs are appropriate for civil service testing and eligible list development. However, the promotion from entry level to journeyman level need not be handled in that same way.

Consider a concept such as "block budgeting" in which positions are authorized or budgeted at the journeyman level and directors have discretion to choose to fill a vacancy at either level. If filled at the entry level, the individual may be promoted noncompetitively when predetermined job-related skills and milestones have been demonstrated.

This is not only faster and more flexible, but it allows the individual employee to know where he or she stands from the very first moment of employment.

Delegation of some HR recruitment. With reasonable controls for abuse prevention and liability management, some work can be decentralized to staff working on-site at major client locations. An agency with a variety of specialized positions not found in most organizations would be a reasonable target group.

The examples might include an airport or a hospital. With HR establishing basic guidelines and conducting audits and complaint responses, a fair amount of the workload of a centralized and more rigid HR agency can be "downloaded" to a client for improved results.

Consolidation. Agencies tend to increase in complexity, sometimes with redundancy and conflicting missions.

If your county has separate offices for equal employment opportunity, risk management, benefits functions, training, employee assistance and HR, it is time to consider the advantages (and the risks) of "strategic" consolidation of overall functions, ironically, along with "tactical" decentralization of line level functions.

Automation. Just as the industrial revolution brought about a shift from animal power to machine power, likewise, there are many advantages to office automation at the agency level.

Applicant tracking systems, benefits and human resource information systems, networked word processing, spreadsheet and e-mail systems offer great advantages to agencies by mechanizing routine and repetitive tasks to free the time and brain power of professionals to focus on more important tasks.

Listen to your clients. Replace an atmosphere of whining about HR with an atmosphere of understanding the role and the importance of central policies to reduce risks and keep individuals and the agency out of trouble.

At the same time, listen carefully to the concerns and frustrations of clients and respond to them personally. It is not a coincidence that, as humans, we come equipped with two ears and one mouth. The ratio of listening to talking should reflect at least that situation.

Overall, HR is at a county's "front gate" in developing the work force of the next century and reducing the risks of doing the public's business. Despite that increasing HR role, we do many things that are rooted in traditions and have not been revisited in a long time.

With apologies to Mr. Darwin for using the "natural selection" concept in a column about recruitment, the central point of the theory is that functions develop which are better adapted to survive and thrive in a changing world. Civil service is such a concept. It needs to evolve and it will.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor

(The HR Doctor is written by Phil Rosenberg, Broward County Fla. personnel director.)


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