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Public service reform in Illinois:
recommendations a la Volcker commission

In 1984, a year after he graduated from Western Illinois University, Mark Kolaz quit his job as an insurance agent and joined House Speaker Michael J. Madigan's staff. To Kolaz at that time, public service was more than a career, it was an opportunity to make a difference.

Soon Kolaz found the system did not live up to his expectations. Not only was he not getting paid much, but no longer did he feel he could achieve his goal because of the bureaucratic inflexibility, the limited resources and seemingly endless paperwork."Working with the General Assembly is an incredible learning experience, but it doesn't offer many opportunities for upward mobility. I was interested in legislation on economic development, but very few programs were approved and that portion was almost stagnant," he said.

Kolaz left the legislature in 1989 and now works as a lobbyist for the Associated Beer Distributors of Illinois (ABDI). What could the ABDI offer that the state couldn't? "They offer me more money, and I have more flexibility with what I do. Also my experiences with the legislature serve me well in my new job." Kolaz says. In other words, the government provided the training that Kolaz needed for his current job in the private sector.

Many young people share Kolaz's experience. They entered state government full of anticipation and leave full of disillusionment because neither the personnel system nor the public recognizes their professionalism. To many citizens, public employees are no more than a bunch of lazy bums. What is more, scandals have haunted national, state and local governments in recent years, and politicians' fierce anti-government campaign rhetoric has perpetuated public cynicism. As a consequence, the demand for public services is increasing at an unprecedented speed, while the number of qualified professionals willing to work for the government is decreasing.

In July 1990 the Chicago Community Trust, a 75-year-old community foundation, established the Illinois Commission on the Future of Public Service, a nonpartisan civic group of business, academic, agriculture, labor and government leaders. Its objective was to review the status of state and local government services and make recommendations to Gov. Jim Edgar, Cook County Board President Richard Phelan and local mayors.

The Illinois commission was modeled after the National Commission on Public Service (commonly referred to as the Volcker Commission), which was formed in 1988 to revive public interest in federal government careers. Similar commissions in other states also provided Illinois with successful examples of personnel reform. Several years ago, the state of Washington reviewed the demographics of its labor force, assessed its personnel needs and introduced a semi-decentralized personnel system. Each department now has more authority in the recruitment process, while a central personnel agency supervises the process and makes sure rules are adhered to. California and Minnesota have recently implemented similar changes.

For six months, the Illinois Commission on the Future of Public Service met with current and former public employees across Illinois. It interviewed experts in public service from within and beyond Illinois, assessed Illinois' labor force data and reviewed state personnel codes. In January 1991, after a series of five statewide roundtable discussions and six focus group sessions, the commission released a report entitled "Excellence in Public Service: Illinois' Challenge for the '90s."

The commission identified the following major problems with Illinois public service:

• The state's current personnel code, which went into place in 1955, has failed to attract young, talented people to government jobs and to keep them there. According to the report, the public has no access to a complete list of openings in state government, and prospective employees must file multiple applications without knowing whether or not vacancies exist. Moreover, the three-to-six-month wait following the application prompts the best applicants to take other jobs. The testing procedure and the various qualifications defined in the personnel system do not reflect the ability needed for the particular job.

The current civil service system or code within the personnel code is characterized by a rigid hierarchical structure that does not give managers sufficient flexibility to hire, reward and promote employees. Pay increases are based primarily on seniority, not on skills and performance, and the career paths for young professionals are over-specialized and limited.

• Gaps between public and private sector salaries are widening, making private sector jobs more practical for students who have college loans to repay. Wages for public sector attor-

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neys, computer programmers and engineers lag behind their private sector counterparts by about $10,000 or more. As a result, turnover among professionals in these categories is high, with 60 percent leaving state employment in the first three years. Some pick up jobs from the private sector after gaining substantial experience during their government tenures.

• State minority recruitment efforts are weak. Minorities comprise 25 percent of the state work force but hold only 11 percent of the top executive jobs.

• State agency directors and their top aides lack experience or training in management, supervision or strategic planning. Although the state offers training courses through the Illinois Institute for Training and Development at Sangamon State University in Springfield, only 600 of 15,000 eligible managers have participated in the program. In many agencies, directors hide their training dollars so that they won't be cut when money is tight.

• The persistent patronage system continues to be an overriding problem in filling middle-level managerial positions. "You get people brought in or promoted on the basis of who they know politically, rather than on their qualifications," says Roberta Lynch, director of public policy at the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME). "At the same time it demoralizes people at the lower levels who are to be promoted into higher levels."

To address these problems, the commission recommends that the governor form a Human Resource Advisory Council to thoroughly review and restructure the state's 46-year-old personnel code. The council can also assist the state in conducting cost-benefit analyses of proposed programs, surveying employees' attitudes and monitoring changes in the state personnel system. Its leaders should be directly responsible to the governor and have the authority to act on his behalf. Its members should include both representatives from private sector firms and from other states where personnel systems have undergone successful reforms.

The commission recommends recruitment policies following the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) model, which requires agency directors to visit an assigned number of campuses and conduct one-on-one interviews. According to the commission report, since GAO began its on-campus recruiting, applications increased from 4,000 to 7,000 for 200 professional jobs.

At the same time, the state should expand every internship program it runs to increase the pool of undergraduate and graduate students interested in public services. The Dunn Fellowship Program is a management-training internship program housed in the governor's office. Since its inception in 1979, about 44 percent of its interns have remained in state service, while another 10 percent are now working for local governments.

Implementation: first steps by Edgar

State government has begun making plans to implement some of the recommendations of the Illinois Commission on the Furture of Public Service. On March 18, Stephen B. Schnorf, director of the Department of Central Management Services (CMS), sat down with agency managers to review the commission's proposals. "We are pretty much in agreement with the report. We are looking at implementing the proposed changes with an eye towards the budget because money is a big consideration," CMS spokesperson Kathryn Rem said afterwards.

Preliminary plans discussed at the meeting include:

• Expanding the existing internship programs with the assistance of private companies or associations to avoid state costs.

• Attracting more qualified college graduates to state government jobs by sending department directors to different campuses once or twice a year. The directors will talk with the students about state government and give information on jobs available.

• Opening up the personnel system so that the list of job openings can be accessible to the public.

• Expanding programs like "Employee of the Month" and "State Employee Suggestions Award" to publicize the good work and the innovations of state employees. Such programs make state employees realize that their contributions are valued and help improve the negative images held by the public.

• Reviewing the various training programs available to agency managers, and setting up programs and offering courses which managers really need.

Wen Huang

The commission also urged the Edgar administration to initiate pilot programs in two agencies, or in parts of two agencies, replicating successful private sector management techniques. Such techniques could include project-team and ownership-building strategies. "Project teams" give the system the flexibility to let managers assemble expertise for special projects; participants can be transferred back to their original classifications when the project is over. "Ownership-building'' means helping employees to psychologically merge their personal goals with those of the agency. At the same time, the commission suggested that state government make these pilots part of a public education campaign to improve public understanding of government and change its negative image.

The new governor responded positively to the commission report. In his State of the State address in February, Gov. Edgar pledged to follow up on the commission recommendations and later assigned Sally Jackson, his director of government operations, the responsibility to create the statewide Human Resource Advisory Council "to develop the framework of a more modern personnel system that is both efficient and attractive to potential state employees." Edgar said the council will include representatives from the Department of Central Management Services, various other state agencies, unions, the universities, the legislature and people, from the private sector.

The governor pledged to put the council "on the fast track," but Jackson says at this point that the governor needs to asses the fiscal impact of these reforms. "Those costs and savings have to be assessed and built into the planning process of the council. Apparently, we don't have a lot of money for changes."

Jackson says three or four pilot programs in different types and sizes of agencies can begin this fiscal year so that they can be fully operational in fiscal year 1993. "Through these pilots, we hope to deal with the critical questions raised by the commission and have a year of experience for feedback," she says, Jackson thinks those suggested personnel code revisions can

18/May 1991/Illinois Issues

be accomplished by some radical changes in interpreting the civil service code rather than by tossing it out. She says that the current personnel code only outlines basic principles and policies; most of the specific rules are based on the historical interpretations and practices of the Department of Central Management Services. For example, in determining classifications, Jackson doesn't consider the number of people each manager supervises a meaningful way of assessing the magnitude of duties. "It wasn't written into law. It is just historical practice and can be changed and redefined without scrapping the existing law at all," she says, "These are the factors that need to be weighed and that the council needs to look at."

Pam McDonough, House Minority Leader Lee A. Daniels' chief of staff and a commission member, says the report comes both at the best time and the worst time. "We are at a point where the new governor pledges to cut down the size of state government, and his extensive experience in state government may give him a microcosmic view of the working of government. From his recent personnel appointments, we can see the governor has committed himself to professionalizing the public services." On the other hand, McDonough adds that money poses a big problem. "You can't get into any new program areas. We are supposed to cut government jobs by 2,000. That doesn't necessarily mean we are not hiring, but the pool of people being hired will be small."

Reinterpreting or changing the personnel code itself is no easy job. The difficulty is not just that it's a complex code but that people disagree on what's wrong with it. According to McDonough, the civil service system has long been perceived as a form of protection for state employees. "Like the veteran's preference in hiring and promotion —if you go through the whole process of people bidding for jobs, the most senior might get the good jobs. They might not be the best people, but if they stayed in the system long enough, the system provides protection." Any elimination of these protections will meet strong resistance. On other occasions, if the manager wants to lay off some less qualified people, it takes months of paperwork before the agency can collect sufficient documentation to deal with the union. MacDonough calls this "the practical and political side of the issue'' and says sometimes reform may not be doable.

But AFSCME's Lynch argues that none of the managerial positions that the commission focuses on is represented by a union. Even if the positions were under union contract, it would not affect hiring. In general. Lynch says, unions have influence in the promotion but not in the hiring process. The strong language in the union contract regarding promotions helps prevent patronage from coming into play; that is, the agency directors "have to be able to prove that the person is demonstratively superior to the union-represented employee in line for the job." She continues, "On the other hand, you see a lot of patronage in hiring and promotions going on in some middle-level managerial positions which are nonunion-represented."

Lynch claims that the report is too vague in backing up its recommendations for sweeping changes in the personnel system. "The report doesn't cite one specific provision of the civil service code, not even one, and it is very vague about actual problems it creates and what actual changes they could make in the system," she says.

Elizabeth Hollander, executive director of the Commission on the Future of Public Service, agrees: "We didn't dissect it [the civil service code] in great detail because we don't have the expertise to do the job. We only set the guidelines, and it is up to the individual agencies to formulate their own reform plans." Nevertheless, Hollander says that some recommendations are very specific and clear-cut, like simplifying application procedures and listing job vacancies to the public. These can be easily implemented, she says.

Kenneth Oldfield, associate professor of public administration at Sangamon State University, says that parts of the report seem highly academic. Oldfield questions the wisdom of applying private sector criteria to government work. "This is like asking why the Boston Celtics can't beat the Chicago Bears in football — because it is unrealistic to apply football standards to basketball players," Oldfield says.

According to Oldfield, politicians, by definition, are driven by political pressures, especially votes, and therefore private sector standards and behaviors may be economically efficient but politically unsound. Oldfield doubts whether the Edgar administration can significantly "reform" the state personnel system if it relies too heavily on private sector-oriented proposals. Such attempts will be strongly opposed by certain interest groups, such as veterans' organizations and the unions. "The governor can't afford to offend these interest groups because his decisions are based on political, not economic, considerations," Oldfield says.

For people like Kolaz, who have been drawn into state government and received training in some specialized area with public money, the only incentive to stay with the state is higher salaries. That, Oldfield says, is extremely difficult.

Atty. Gen. Roland W. Burris agrees: "For an attorney at my office, the starting salary now is $20,000, which, to me, is criminal." Burris says he will lobby hard for an increase in attorney salaries. "We have to seek enough incentives to stop the erosion. I am aware of the budget crunch, but we shouldn't be short-sighted. It is in the interest of the state. In the long run, if we let the litigations linger, it will be more costly than getting the pay raise," he says.

James M. Banovetz, professor of public administration at Northern Illinois University, supplied background information for the commission's report. He expressed concern over Edgar's commitment to reforms: "The attention and concerns of the state political leadership are focused in other directions like reapportionment, tax reform, etc., and there is no evidence that they are concerned. I think, by and large, the delivery of services is not their first concern."

In his State of State address, Edgar said he hopes to implement some reforms before the General Assembly adjourns this summer. Whether he means it or not, changing the 46-year-old personnel system is no easy job. But Hollander says it must be done now: "The system doesn't have to be like that just because it happened to be that way for 50 years. It doesn't work, and we are going to do something. "

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