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National Association of Counties * Washington, DC            Vol. 30, No. 19 * October 8, 1998

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Living In the 19th Century

(This is one of three HR Doctor columns on the subject of Civil Service reform. The others were published in County News on April 27 and May 25, 1998.)

Let’s face it. Civil service is a 19th century concept. It developed as a response to and as a replacement for the “spoils system,” in which employment decisions were made based upon factors such as political affiliation, gender, race, whom you knew, or to whom you were related.

Civil service was more than a response, however. It was a hope, hundred years ago, that the new “merit” paradigm would transform public administration in the same way that science and technology were changing the way Americans lived, worked and played.

A hundred years later, we in the human resources profession are again searching for framework to guide 21st century public administration. This is because the three main components of the civil service concept — merit-based selection, “for cause” discipline and “merit pay” haven’t exactly evolved as originally conceived in many cases.

Many public agencies have a merit or civil service pay system with salary steps in salary ranges. On an annual basis — usually on a service anniversary date — employees receive a performance evaluation and move progressively up the steps until they reach the top step.

Look at your own personnel records, however. You may find that some employees move through the ranges based on inertia and remaining conscious for a 12-month period, rather than upon documented and measured performance excellence.

In many agencies, this inertia takes the form of “check the box” evaluations where managers and supervisors spend seconds filling out the form. Getting the form filled out becomes the center of their attention, rather than reviewing the employee the work performance in relation to goals and measurable outcomes.

Though the HR Doctor doesn’t bet very often, I would wager that well over 90 percent of the “merit increases” are at an organizational “satisfactory” average of, for example, 5 percent.

In addition, depending on the agency, many people have moved along through the steps to the point where they are at the top of the salary scale. That, in turn, creates pressure to expand salary ranges or to create “roses by other names” such as “assignment pay,” to increase the breadth of the pay range. “Longevity pay” is a common title for such extensions. These are, nonetheless, tools to continue a flow of pay increases to persons who have moved through ranges.

In addition, many public employees are now represented by unions or other collective bargaining units, which all share a common focus on the negotiation of wages. In some jurisdictions, employees receive negotiated wage settlements, perhaps in the form of cost of living adjustments and still receive anniversary date merit increases. In other words, employees receive the best of both worlds.

However, as Isaac Newton pointed out in his laws of motion, it is possible to change inertia.

One step is to recognize that union-represented employees may, indeed, be entitled by law to salary increases negotiated as part of their contract, but they are not necessarily entitled to other increases, such as “merit pay.

In addition, an increasing focus on one-time cash bonuses based on merit considerations or longevity will likely replace traditional “one size fits all” merit pay systems, especially for persons at the tops of ranges. Managers need more flexibility to recognize and reward performance excellence quickly.

Further, we have traditionally paid people for time worked. The public agency of the 21st century will focus very great attention to pay-for-services-performed and outcomes produced.

This short column isn’t the place to discuss the shifting model in detail. However, elected and appointed officials should be aware of the traditional models which may be at work in their own agencies and whether their agencies’ practices are living in the 19th century or moving in the new directions which mark the future.

HR is a fast growing and exciting profession. All elected and appointed officials need to be familiar with its basic tenets and where to go to get competent help. If we don’t share this information, the calendar may read 1998, but the practices in our agencies could just as easily read 1898.

Best Wishes,
The HR Doctor



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