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 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 the 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, recruit on campus, 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. 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. ●