The Best and the Brightest
Making the progressive dream of
efficient public management come true
January 30, 1992
For decades, improving the standard of public employees in Illinois meant restricting patronage. Since the 1970s—in an age in which State of Illinois jobs demand more skills—it has meant improving the pay and working conditions of public employees. That reform, it turns out, is much the harder.
A year ago, the 39-member Illinois Commission on the Future of Public Service released a report outlining improvements that might make it easier to attract and keep talented people in state government jobs. The need is plain enough. The right people aren't in the right jobs, and good work either doesn't get done or isn't rewarded. Describing the state of the state, personnel-system-wise, brought out the artist in the report's author, who in a mere three sentences used the words ill-equipped, confusing, conflicting, inflexible, rigid, inefficient, and nonproductive.
The commission is the child of the Government Assistance Project of the Chicago Community Trust. The goals of the trust's good government project are high-minded and long-winded in equal parts. Boiling them down, they seek to "improve government management" so as to "bring the best and the brightest into public service in the state of Illinois."
State government in particular doesn't work very well in part because reformers worked so hard in the past to make it work better. The trust's panel concluded for example that civil service—that centerpiece of Progressive era reform—made government more "honest" at the cost of making it inefficient. Over the years state agencies and departments have gradually revised their personnel codes to incorporate objective hiring tests and rigidly prescribed procedures for hiring and dismissal. The process converted the party hack into the bureaucrat but did little to restrain the politicians. Says project director Elizabeth Hollander, "If you got rid of patronage tomorrow, the civil service system prevents you from getting the best and the brightest into government and keeping them in."
The methods devised by Illinois politicians to skirt the requirements of the various "merit boards" and civil service commissions constitute virtually the sole instances of innovation in government administration since the invention of the mosquito abatement district. The challenges faced by the commission were brilliantly lit on the front page of the State Journal-Register of January 5, one year ago. The SJR that day ran a story about the release of the commission's state government study at the bottom of Page 1. The headline story above it detailed complaints that departing attorney general Neil Hartigan had reclassified 375 jobs under his control so as to leave them—and thus the Hartigan loyalists who held them—protected by union contracts.
James Thompson, the recently retired CEO of Illinois, Inc., ran a hybrid system. Patronage was a factor, he has said, but only in choosing between otherwise qualified candidates. (If efforts to settle out of court the Rutan case challenging Thompson's patronage fiddles fail, the resulting trial promises to do to the Thompson administration what the Palm Beach rape trial did for the Kennedys.) Thus distorted from its intent, the civil service system makes it possible for the hacks to hire their friends but makes it impossible for their managers to fire them. Illinois taxpayers have ended up with the worst of patronage and of reform.
The commission has a laundry list of reforms to make things better. At a minimum, it concluded, "The state must radically revise its personnel code." The happy results that might follow are suggested by the Bureau of the Budget, which is exempt from the sillier restraints of the code. BOB has a reputation for aggressively recruiting talent—which is why other agencies recruit BoB staff when they need bright young people.
There are any number of lesser improvements that the state might attempt—publish a central list of job openings, expand sabbatical opportunities for managers, and recruit on campus. The state might also set up exchange programs between public and private sectors; the state's Chamber of Commerce for example has boosted the idea of using private bankers to review of loan projects of the Department of Commerce and Community Affairs.
Obscured by this housekeeping paraphernalia are ideas for more radical and thus more productive reforms. One of the drags on productivity among state employees is the fact that they (or their agencies) receive scant reward for it. The commission encouraged state departments to become flexible in spending by acting as entrepreneurs within the system. A department could be allowed to keep money unspent from each year's budget; these "profits" would be an incentive to efficiency.
Why stop there? The simplest way to make the personnel code work better is to render it unnecessary. Why not let each agency do its own hiring, subject to Rutan standards and audited for compliance? Rather than rely on a centralized hiring bureaucracy, agencies would contract with private labor management consultants to provide better service for a fraction of the cost.
Competition would stimulate innovation as well as reward it. The state's Department of Central Management Services is in effect a collection of small service firms that provide photocopying or car rental or printing to other state agencies. According to at least one veteran administrator, CMS does none of those jobs very well. "The concept of the service industry hasn't struck them yet. They're a monopoly and like all monopolies they extract monopoly rents, only instead of money it's in the form of power." Why not spin off CMS's divisions into free-standing "businesses" that would submit bids for service contracts with state agencies (and other units of government, for that matter) in open competition with private-sector firms?
Gov. Jim Edgar has agreed with the commission's basic findings, and in his 1991 State of the State address he conceded the need to reform the state work force. (With that flair for the poetic that is the hallmark of all Baptists on the pulpit he promised "improved government efficiency.") Edgar boldly set up an advisory council to devise "a more modern personnel system" which has already made plans under which three major agencies will experiment with what were described as team-oriented approaches to organizational problem-solving.
The chairman of Edgar's personnel council is a top executive of IBM. It will be interesting to see if he pushes for a government equivalent of IBM's plan to cut loose that firm's major divisions from its calcified central bureaucracy as a way to not just cut costs but free up creativity. IBM this year posted its first-ever money-losing year; it is a measure of how badly run government is that imitating even a creaking corporation might improve it. ●
Essential for anyone interested in Illinois history and literature. Hallwas deservedly won the 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Illinois State Historical Society.
One of Illinois’s best, and least-known, writers of his generation. Take note in particular of The Distancers and Road to Nowhere.
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 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.
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.
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.
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."
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 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” 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."
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.
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.
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
Southern Illinois University Press 2017
A work of solid history, entertainingly told.
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.
The Annals of Iowa
A book that merits the attention of all Illinois historians
as well as local historians generally.
Journal of Illinois HIstory
A model for the kind of detailed and honest history other states and regions could use.
A fine example of a resurgence of Midwest historical scholarship.
Journal of the Illinois
State Historical Society
to read about
to buy the book
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
Politics & government
Arts & culture