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Managing to Get By

Public servants, treated like the help

Illinois Issues

November 2010

Griping about layabout state workers might have been justified in the patronage days, but that was a long time ago now. Of late, the problem is not that state workers don’t earn the pay they get but that they don’t get the pay they earn, which has crippled government by driving good people out of public service.


One of several pieces I did on state management—an under-reported topic.

In this version I fixed the things I should have fixed before it went to print.


When I was growing up in Springfield, I was never quite sure what my state worker neighbors did, but I was pretty certain they didn't do it too hard. State of Illinois employees in those days might have been only cogs in a machine, but those cogs were more likely to rust than to break from hard use. They worked fewer days and paid less for insurance than their neighbors, and if their pay was not princely, their pensions were, all things considered.

That the worst that could be said of most state workers was that they were dutiful and competent owed to a century of reform efforts. From Illinois's first days as a commonwealth, state workers had been reviled as place-seekers who were under-qualified, under-worked, under-motivated, and more answerable to their patronage sponsors than the public they ostensibly served. That was never true of all state workers, and was completely true about only the worst of them, but merit hiring and other windmill-jousting by reformers was driven by a desire to improve the quality of the workforce found wanting in competence or commitment. But standards had risen as the scope of government services expanded, and beginning in the 1950s, virtually the whole of the workforce was made subject (at least pro forma) to civil service hiring standards.


If the workforce thus improved, public opinion of it has not. The complaints began in earnest in the 1980s, when governments in general began to be excoriated as problem causers rather than problem solvers by the U.S. right wing. And we have seen again that taxpayers become sensitive to the cost of government operations when earning the tax dollars needed to pay for them becomes difficult. The public damns lawmakers at all levels for being bad at their jobs; as during the Depression, many seem to damn state "bureaucrats" simply for having a job.


The more we expect of state workers, the more often we are likely to be disappointed in their performance. A gap remains between the ideal and the sufficient. In 2008, it was announced that the Washington, DC-based Pew Center on the States put Illinois near the bottom of its rankings in a report rating state governments by how well they manage their money, people, information, and infrastructure. What that means in practical terms was revealed that same year by the auditor general's office, whose annual review of the Department of Healthcare and Family Services found 15 "serious concerns" from untimely health care payments to tardy financial statements to claims paid from the wrong funds.


The mutterings on the blogosphere are about a privileged class insulated by patronage or union contracts from the economic storms that wrecked the hopes of so many in the private sector. "For two hours, 1 saw little or no work from anyone," wrote one reader to the Champaign News-Gazette last year after a visit to the Department of Revenue's offices in Springfield. "What I did see were dozens of state employees roaming the halls and engaging in small talk, like they were touring a museum."


For the servant to live better than the masters upsets the natural order. Thus, the genuine anger that greeted the news in July that Gov. Pat Quinn gave salary increases averaging 11.4 percent to 35 of his own staffers in the past 15 months, while layoffs in other executive departments left many middle managers doing two jobs for one salary.

Resentment of state workers—and public employees in general—animates the anti-incumbent mood. No politician will win running only against state employees; none—perhaps except in the Springfield area—will lose by criticizing them. Both the major-party candidates in this year's state comptroller race have urged that salaries of all state employees and elected officials be published online, as a sort of public-interest Megan's Law. The Illinois Policy Institute, a conservative think tank, has sought copies of employee evaluations for every state worker in Illinois via the Freedom of Information Act in an attempt to determine whether the taxpayers are getting value for their money.


We will not here try to answer the complicated question of whether state workers are paid more than their neighbors in the private sector doing the same kind of work. Nor will we explore why so many of the nation's post-recession private workers find themselves with so little or why disaffected private sector workers who feel exploited have turned their ire not against their bosses but against their neighbors in happier circumstances. These are not Illinois issues but national ones.


However, the checks still go out, and the forms get processed. (State "bureaucrats"—a term that takes in only a fraction of state workers—are paragons of public service, compared with members of the General Assembly.) More thoughtful observers of state operations (including may veteran state workers) have a different view. The scandal, they insist, is not that Illinois has too many people on the payroll but that the ones who are employed are not used well. Not that they are dishonest, but that they are ill-trained, ill-organized, and ill-equipped. Not that they don't know how to do their jobs, but that too often, they are prevented from doing them. While paper-pushing is not one of the species' more testing challenges, setting up systems to push paper is, and administrative systems at the state level sometimes seem designed to frustrate good management.


Budgeting? Governors and legislators allocate money line by line, with little regard for each line's impact on programs. Salaries? The problem from an administrator's point of view is not that they are too high but that they are too uniform; standardized pay scales serve fairness at the expense of efficiency because they offer no reward for superior performance.


Hiring? Partisan meddling in agency operations is infamous, but trying to end partisan meddling exacts its own costs. David Hamilton, a former professor of public administration at Roosevelt University who is today the director of the MPA program at Texas Tech University, has argued for years that merit-based hiring systems are designed less to improve staff function by putting the best and the brightest into state jobs than to keep patronage-oriented applicants out of them. Worse, such systems tend to be centralized and bureaucratic, and thus impose on departments high costs in flexibility and accountability.


Continuity? Capable and committed veterans once numbered in the thousands in state service and deserve much credit for keeping the rickety apparatus from crashing to the ground. Employees like that ought to be begged to stay, but they are largely missing, having been invited to retire early by governors pressed to downsize. Such voluntary layoffs have the unhappy effect of culling the payrolls of able but frustrated employees as well as dysfunctional ones.


Recruitment and retention? Replacing early-leavers with new workers who rank lower on the salary scale buys lower payroll costs at the expense of expertise. Most of today's talented college grads regard going to work for the state as only a slightly better career choice than moving back in with mom and dad. Bright kids who want to improve their cash balances opt for the bucks that the corporate world offers, or for the satisfactions offered by the nonprofit sector if they want to improve the world. Most state jobs are not seen as a way to realize either ambition.


As for hiring, inexperienced patronage hacks who are redefined as managers as part of a Rutan workaround shouldn't be hired but are, while union-protected hacks who are indifferent or incompetent should be fired but aren't. That 2008 Pew report cited Illinois's poor worker training and development as one of the reasons for its poor management ranking. Developing leaders by identifying young staffers of promise is futile if the rungs on the promotion ladder are crowded with protected political appointees. As for exposing staff to new ideas, the budgets for conference travel and further education are first cut, if they ever existed in first place.


Worker morale? The legislator proposes, but the bureaucrat disposes. Nonetheless, the last interest group to which lawmakers or office seekers consult about the wisdom of a new program or policy—after they've polled the voters, the interest groups, the donors, even the media—is the people who must be relied on to make that program or policy actually work. According to public administration scholar Frank Sherwood, a lot of dedicated administrators probably wouldn't mind being paid so little if they were heeded a little more.


Former Gov. Rod Blagojevich has been damned for many sins, but the damage he did to Illinois's reputation is nothing compared with the damage he did to its state government's ability to do its job. Middle managers in the post-Blago era might be better called muddle managers, given the shambles that the governor made of agency operations. Mike Lawrence, the reporter turned top Edgar aide who then ran the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University, recalled in a recent Chicago Tribune opinion piece how their ranks were thinned by ham-handed dismissals unrelated to skills or experience. Pay was frozen while out-of-pocket benefits costs increased, while judges and university administrators outside Blago's reach raked it in. Worse, their unionized underlings in their own departments were getting raises, with predictably dire effects on morale.


As bison huddle together to protect themselves against a blizzard, so its managers are joining other workers in employee unions. The new recruits included supervisors and policy advisers traditionally regarded as management. About 95 percent of employees in the 16 largest agencies under the governor's control, reported Lawrence, are now organized.


With administrators protected by their political patrons at the top, and the rank-and-file protected by their unions at the bottom, a narrowing band of employees is left that is vulnerable to exploitation. Quinn asked nonunion state workers to take 24 furlough days in a year, which is the equivalent of a nine percent cut in salary; AFSCME workers agreed to a temporary two percent cut—of a 14 percent pay raise agreed by his predecessor in 2008.

Public administration wonks have joined ideologues of the right in complaining that AFSCME is the political party that really controls Illinois government. That exaggerates. However, deals such as the one Quinn recently struck with AFSCME, under which the state agreed to not cut jobs or close institutions until June 2012 in return for at least $50 million worth of furlough days, reduced overtime, and other cost-cutting measures, do infringe on traditional managerial prerogatives.


As a means of improving workforce performance, being able to hire on merit probably means less than being able to fire with cause. This state is less and less able to do that. The Howe Developmental Center in Tinley Park was closed in June after investigations by the U.S. Department of Justice and the state inspector general's office confirmed patterns of questionable employee neglect and improper care that may have contributed to more than 30 deaths and which led the feds in 2007 to rescind Howe's Medicaid certification. The then-director (the fifth of five in as many years) declared problems there to be "pervasive" and "unfix-able." Not a single Howe manager or employee was fired, however, and nearly 400 former Howe workers are employed at other state facilities for the develop-mentally disabled (thanks to a union agreement that guaranteed them roughly the same job at the same salary in another facility) or were transferred to work in other state departments, according to the Chicago Tribune.


Lawrence raised another issue. In smaller offices, every employee might belong to the same union. "Can the governor or an agency chief realistically expect one union member to discipline another?" Lawrence asked. "What happens when a middle manager is asked to push changes in assignments and schedules—or to oversee further downsizing—against the rigorous resistance of fellow union members?"


Critics complain that state government, indeed governments at all levels, are not subject to the competitive pressures that compel private corporations to run tighter ships. The nearly universally recommended cure for the state of Illinois' workforce ills is a strong dose of private sector-style competition to discipline the bureaucracy by (for example) introducing choice in the provision of public services or making at-will the basis of the public employee contracts. Such novelties have actually been adopted in small ways in those few states in which the word "manage" does not refer to containing the political impact of a scandal.


One is entitled to be skeptical of plans that would turn good government agencies into bad businesses. A government agency can indeed be run in a businesslike manner, but that does not make it a business. (Indeed, one could argue that many a state agency is run too much like a business—General Motors circa 1980s.)


Public ire will fade because it always does. In the meantime, decent and capable people will show up every workday to try to run a system they didn't design and cannot control while saddled with indifferent or incompetent underlings, directed by political appointees with short tenures and shorter attention spans, often doing two jobs because of staff cuts while being criticized by the public they serve for being paid too much for one. That is the real problem with the Illinois state worker. ●




John Hallwas

Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.

Lee Sandlin Author

One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.

Chicago Architecture Center

See Home Page/Learn/

Resources for a marvelous building database, architecture dictionary, even a city planning graphic novel. Handsome, useful—every Illinois culture website should be so good.

The Encyclopedia of Chicago


The online version of The Encyclopedia of Chicago. Crammed with thousands of topic entries, biographical sketches, maps and images, it is a reference work unmatched in Illinois.

Illinois Great Places

The Illinois chapter of the American Institute of Architects in 2018 selected 200 Great Places in Illinois that illustrate our  shared architectural culture across the entire period of human settlement in Illinois.

McLean County Museum

of History

A nationally accredited, award-winning project of the McLean County Historical Society whose holdings include more than 20,000 objects, more than 15,000 books on local history and genealogy, and boxes and boxes of historical papers and images.

Mr. Lincoln, Route 66, and Other Highlights of Lincoln, Illinois


Every Illinois town ought to have a chronicler like D. Leigh Henson, Ph.D. Not only Lincoln and the Mother road—the author’s curiosity ranges from cattle baron John Dean Gillett to novelist William Maxwell. An Illinois State Historical Society "Best Web Site of the Year."

Illinois Digital Archives


Created in 2000, the IDA is a repository for the digital collections of the Illinois State Library and other Illinois libraries and cultural institutions. The holdings include photographs, slides, and glass negatives, oral histories, newspapers, maps, and documents from manuscripts and letters to postcards,  posters, and videos.

The Illinois State Museum


The people's museum is a treasure house of science and the arts. A research institution of national reputation, the museum maintains four facilities across the state. Their collections in anthropology, fine and decorative arts, botany, zoology, geology, and  history are described here. A few museum publications can be obtained here.

Chronicling Illinois

“Chronicling Illinois” showcases some of the collections—mostly some 6,000 photographs—from the Illinois history holdings of the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.


I will leave it to the authors of this interesting site to describe it. "Chicagology is a study of Chicago history with a focus on the period prior to the Second World War. The purpose of the site is to document common and not so common stories about the City of Chicago as they are discovered." 

Illinois Labor History Society

The Illinois Labor History Society seeks to encourage the preservation and study of labor history materials of the Illinois region, and to arouse public interest in the profound significance of the past to the present. Offers books reviews, podcasts, research guides, and the like. 

Illinois Migration History 1850-2017

The University of Washington’s America’s Great Migrations Project has compiled migration histories  (mostly from the published and unpublished work by UW Professor of History James Gregory) for several states, including Illinois. The site also includes maps and charts and essays about the Great Migration of African Americans to the north, in which Illinois figured importantly. 

History on the Fox

An interesting resource about the history of one of Illinois’s more interesting places, the Fox Valley of Kendall County. History on the Fox is the work of Roger Matile, an amateur historian of the best sort. Matile’s site is a couple of cuts above the typical buff’s blog. (An entry on the French attempt to cash in on the trade in bison pelts runs more than

2,000 words.)




Southern Illinois University Press 2017

A work of solid history, entertainingly told.

Michael Burlingame,

author of Abraham 

Lincoln: A Life 

One of the ten best books on Illinois history I have read in a decade.

Superior Achievement Award citation, ISHS Awards, 2018

A lively and engaging study . . .  an enthralling narrative.

James Edstrom

The Annals of Iowa

A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians

as well as local historians generally.

John Hoffman

Journal of Illinois HIstory

A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.

Harold Henderson 

Midwestern Microhistory

A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.

Greg Hall

Journal of the Illinois

State Historical Society

Click  here 

to read about

the book 

Click  here 

to buy the book 


Southern Illinois University Press

SIU Press is one of the four major university publishing houses in Illinois. Its catalog offers much of local interest, including biographies of Illinois political figures, the history (human and natural) and folklore of southern Illinois, the Civil War and Lincoln, and quality reprints in the Shawnee Classics series.

University of

Illinois Press

The U of I Press was founded in 1918. A search of the online catalog  (Books/Browse by subject/Illinois) will reveal more than 150 Illinois titles, books on history mostly but also butteflies, nature , painting, poetry and fiction, and more.  Of particular note are its Prairie State Books,  quality new paperback editions of worthy titles about all parts of Illinois, augmented with scholarly introductions.

University of

Chicago Press

The U of C publishing operation is the oldest (1891) and largest university press in Illinois. Its reach is international, but it has not neglected its own neighborhood. Any good Illinois library will include dozens of titles about Chicago and Illinois from Fort Dearborn to

Vivian Maier.

Northern Illinois University Press

The newest (1965) and the smallest of the university presses with an interest in Illinois, Northern Illinois University Press gave us important titles such as the standard one-volume history of the state (Biles' Illinois:
A History of the Land and Its People) and contributions to the history of Chicago, Illinois transportation, and the Civil War. Now an imprint of Cornell University Press.


Reviews and significant mentions by James Krohe Jr. of more than 50 Illinois books, arranged in alphabetical order

by book title. 


Illinois Center for the Book

Run by the Illinois State Library, The Center promotes reading, writing and author programs meant to honor the state's rich literary heritage. An affiliate of the Library of Congress’s Center for the Book, the site offers award competitions, a directory of Illinois authors, literary landmarks, and reading programs.

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