Republican-proposed civil service changes: a “solution” in need of a problem

Image courtesy One Wisconsin Now
Image courtesy One Wisconsin Now

In yet another case of Wisconsin’s Republicans proposing a “solution” to a problem that doesn’t exist, Republican State Sen. Roger Roth and State Rep. Jim Steineke (pictured, left) have proposed drastic changes to Wisconsin’s civil service laws, which were implemented 110 years ago as a way of removing political partisanship and cronyism from state government.

Republicans have cited an inability to keep hiring on pace with job openings as a reason for the drastic changes to Wisconsin’s civil service laws while conveniently ignoring the severely detrimental impact Act 10 has had on the state’s ability to retain and recruit the “best and brightest” to work in state government. After all, Gov. Walker and Republicans in the Legislature have worked hard since 2010 to portray public employees as enemies to Wisconsin’s taxpayers, so it’s not surprising that the state has had difficulty filling open positions.

Bruce Murphy of Urban Milwaukee has an excellent writeup about the proposed changes to Wisconsin’s civil service laws. Here’s a snippet.

The first step toward killing civil service was included in last summer’s biennial budget, which replaced the Office of State Employment Relations with a new Division of Personnel within DOA, the’s state’s most political department. The head of both that division and the Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection, which administers the civil service exam, are now appointed by the DOA secretary, rather than selected through a competitive civil service exam. They have effectively become political appointees.

Next comes the proposed reform bill, championed by Republican state Sen. Roger Roth and GOP Majority Leader Jim Steineke, which they’ve called “a plan to update Wisconsin’s civil service law.” It’s modeled on the Tennessee law.

The two legislators have offered little or no evidence that current state departments fail to hire the best people for the job or that state departments now provide poor service, which is the essential goal of civil service. Rather they have talked about modernizing the system to be more efficient like the private sector.

They have suggested civil service entrance exams for hiring employees are “flawed,” without explaining how. But the exams were always created by the Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection (now disbanded) in conjunction with departments doing the hiring. Why can’t the tests simply be rewritten, supporters of the system have asked.

Roth and Steineke have suggested applicants are able to “easily manipulate” exams, again without any explanation. But as Troy Bauch, staff representative for AFSCME Council 32 (which represents state employees) puts it, “If there is any problem, why wouldn’t they identify it and remedy it?”

They have suggested the civil service exam will be replaced by a “blindly scored resume process.” But how can someone review a resume without seeing if the applicant has held positions connected to Republican causes or organizations or individuals? “It will be a completely subjective review,” Bauch says. “It’s going to come down to cronyism, nepotism, favoritism, friendships.” If there is nothing to stop the party in power from hiring their friends, that’s what they will do, as American history has proven.

In the old system, Bauch explains, the top-scoring candidates testing for a job at, say, the Columbia correctional system would then be interviewed by an interim panel set up by the prison’s leaders. “It really does bring the best and brightest applicants into the system.”

Under the new system, all applicants for positions in any departments (and state government is huge) would all go through DOA. “The sheer number of applicants coming into one funnel will be huge,” Bauch says. And the politicians at DOA, rather than the experts at various state departments, who know their department’s needs, will make the decisions.

What’s most disconcerting about the proposal put forth by Republicans in the Legislature is the provision that would do away with civil service testing and replace that system with resume reviews. The current system of civil service exams grades each applicant based on their knowledge of the particular job they are applying for, while a resume review won’t provide any of the same information.

Then again, it’s clear that Republican attempts to go to resume reviews instead of civil service exams is just another attempt to fill state jobs with unqualified individuals who happen to be connected to the Republican Party or elected officials – just like Brian Deschane.


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