Managing to Get By
Public servants, treated like the help
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.
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, 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 its 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.
As the workforce has 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; many seem to damn state "bureaucrats" 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 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 high costs in flexibility and accountability on departments.
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—if it can be bought at all. 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' 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 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' 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 his 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 the 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 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. ●