Wisconsin Civil Service Reform Is Ill Advised

Wisconsin’s current administration was elected on an agenda of creating jobs, cutting taxes, and fixing the budgets shortfalls. They have failed to produce on all three points. Wisconsin is still lagging behind most other states in job creation. Tax cuts for most citizens have been zero or very small while fees have increased. The state budget is still a problem.

They have succeeded in creating an avalanche of ill-advised public policy changes which have nothing to do with their original goals. They began with turning down federal dollars for high speed rail and Medicare expansion and continued with restricting public employee collective bargaining, mining law changes, voter ID, right-to-work, reducing shoreline protection, and restricting local ordinance powers. The biggest failure has been the administration’s economic development agency.

The Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation (WEDC) was supposed to create jobs but has mostly resulted in waste, fraud and corruption. True to Governor Walker’s play book these changes were not studied by subject matter experts and the legislation was rushed through with minimal debate and public input.

Changes to the civil service system are a case in point. The law replaces civil service exams with a resume-based system. It requires that layoffs be based on job performance instead of seniority, extends the probationary time for new hires, changes what is just cause for employee discipline, curtails reinstatement rights, and consolidates hiring within the Department of Administration. All these are ways to increase political control over public employees. Even the administration’s own personnel department questioned the changes. Last year a new Division of Personnel Management was created by Walker and the legislature to replace the Division of Merit Recruitment. As reported by the Wisconsin State Journal a staff person in the new agency wrote an internal memo critical of the civil service changes. The memo predicted the proposed law would “increase the number of qualified applicants inadvertently turned away and the number of unqualified applicants who inappropriately reach the interview stage.”

The memo said state government will be staffed by less qualified workers. The memo was critical of the other changes and says, “Changes of such significance have never been made to the civil service system without being preceded by a study.” (“Scott Walker’s HR agency slammed civil service changes in private memo,” Wisconsin State Journal, Mark Sommerhauser, May 2, 2016 http://host.madison.com/wsj/news/local/govt-and-politics/scott-walker-s-hr-agency-slammed-civil-service-changes-in/article_762132ff-7b57-5f80-afbd-d0ad3861cb56.html)

Ironically this memo illustrates the value of a strong civil service system. The person who wrote the memo is no longer with the agency. Speaking truth to power can have consequences. Civil service systems provide some protection for putting the public good above pleasing the boss.

When your own staff are questioning policy changes it should be a red flag to slow down and reconsider the issue. When changes in public policy are ideologically based, rushed through, not well thought out, not studied, or copied from an out-of-state think tank things can go wrong. The result is not good public policy and creates more problems than it solves.

As a retired Wisconsin public employee with 26 years service in three departments and five job titles, I have experience with civil service tests. I have taken many of them. Not all of them were multiple choice. Some were evaluations of background and experience and required actual qualifications to pass the test. These tests do not get the applicant a job, they only get that person on an eligibility list. The common feature of all of them is they provide some objectivity for the process. Having worked in employment screening and teaching how to write resumes, I can tell you resumes are not an objective hiring tool.

The essential purpose of the civil service process is to prevent cronyism, nepotism, and political criteria for the hiring of public employees. Of course any system can be gamed and favoritism can play a role if the candidate scores high enough on the test to get an interview. But merit civil service systems are a huge improvement over the prior, highly politicized “spoils” system.

Civil service has worked well for Wisconsin for over 100 years. Why did the Walker administration want to change the system? The obvious answer is to increase political control over public hiring.

Government policy and regulations don’t come about out of the blue. Public policy, laws and regulations are created to achieve a public purpose. Laws are created through an evolutionary process (often a slow process and sometimes driven by crisis) of reacting to actual problems and public needs. Even if there is disagreement on policy, good laws become accepted because they work. An example is accessibility in public places. Wheel chair accessibility has also benefited baby stroller users, bicyclists, skate boarders, and delivery people while costing very little. Another example is the former Wisconsin civil service system.

When public policy is carefully researched, debated, and enacted in good faith it makes society better, cleaner, safer and more fair. We should remember this at election time.