Imagine if your company wasn’t able to reward its best employees with raises, wasn’t able to hire new employees when they were needed, and was forced to tolerate poor performers and malcontents because of a bureaucratic maze that made firing almost impossible.
Unfortunately, that’s the situation Arizona state government finds itself in.
State governments originally established their personnel systems with the noble intention of guarding employees against employers who would carry out employment decisions for reasons that were rooted more in politics than they were in performance. These systems came to be known as “merit” systems, a moniker that couldn’t be a worse fit today.
The pendulum has swung far in the other direction, handcuffing managers who want to reward their best employees and saddling departments with workers who would be better off finding other ways to be productive.
Today’s system means employees can be fired only for cause, complaints can be wrapped up in a lengthy grievance process and a personnel board can overturn disciplinary actions and dismissals for even the most egregious conduct.
Taxpayers pay the price as their tax dollars fund a government that is unable to manage a workforce to its maximum efficiency.
Gov. Jan Brewer has put forth a personnel-reform plan that would inject a needed dose of accountability and reality into state government. Her plan calls for shifting the majority of state employees from their current “covered” status — currently 80 percent of executive-branch employees — to an “uncovered” status, or what is known in the private sector as “at-will.”
Employees could become uncovered by volunteering for the new status or by accepting a change in assignment. Also, once the governor’s plan went into effect, all new hires, all supervisors, employees in high-ranking positions, attorneys and information technology positions would become uncovered.
Current employees who don’t fall into one of those categories would remain in their current covered position assuming they maintained their current status without a break in service.
The change would likely be dramatic. Estimates are that over 82 percent of Arizona’s state government workforce would be uncovered four years after implementation. That means subjecting employees to performance evaluations, basing workforce-reduction decisions on employee performance rather than merely seniority and providing compensation based on merit, job value and labor-market conditions.
These are the same factors that probably figure into employment decisions at your work, but in state government, they’re largely foreign concepts.
This wouldn’t be a Tammany Hall-style system of political patronage. One of the guiding principles behind the entire reform process is that applicants and employees should be managed without regard to their political affiliation, race, color, national origin, sex, age, disability or religion. The anti-discrimination elements of long-standing labor and employment law aren’t going anywhere.
Florida in 2001 and Georgia in 1996 enacted their own personnel-reform measures to address many of the same issues facing Arizona.
Former Georgia Gov. Zell Miller said of his state’s old personnel system, “It offers little reward for good workers. It provides lots of cover for bad workers.” He could have been talking about Arizona. Our state has some outstanding public servants.
Unfortunately, they are too few in number, and many of them could easily find better pay and a better working environment in the private sector. That has to change.
Brewer’s tenure has been marked by reform efforts in the areas of taxes, the legal environment, regulations and education. Her latest reform effort might prove to be not only her most ambitious, but also her toughest and the most needed. She deserves our support as she takes on a personnel system that is badly in need of an overhaul.
Glenn Hamer is the president and chief executive officer of the Arizona Chamber of Commerce and Industry.