Civil Service--Bully, Bully

By George C. Sinnott, Commissioner

New York State Department of Civil Service

I distinctly remember thinking to myself, "Teddy Roosevelt must be spinning in his grave." What would the father of civil service have thought of the reports I just read?

It was January 1995 and I had just completed my first week on the job as Commissioner of the New York State Department of Civil Service. I spent days absorbing reports and critiques of the department by sundry good-government groups, including the Rockefeller Institute of Government and the Business Council of New York State, as well as the Office of the State Comptroller. Nary a good word to be found.

Over 5,500 Provisionals

Over 5,500 state employees were serving provisionally, many for up to five, 10 and 20 years beyond the statutory limit without ever having competed on a civil service test. Imagine, I thought, thousands of employees vested but not legally tested. Further, thousands of state employees were unnecessarily laid off or bumped down to lower-paying jobs because the prior Governor lacked the leadership and the moral will to build a consensus among the Legislature, employee unions and his own department heads to amend a law that defied logic.

Instead of the state acting as a "single employer" to the material benefit of employees and taxpayers, each agency represented a fiefdom where the serf would be damned. Existing civil service law prevented employees from transferring to other agencies; thus, one state agency with a solid revenue source could be hiring new employees while another agency was laying off. Exempt political patronage jobs flourished as the merit system withered on the vine.

Citizens vying for state employment in 1994 waited an average of five months, and in some instances in excess of nine months, to learn how they scored on a civil service test. Imagine, I thought, mom didn't wait that long for me!

When Governor Pataki took office in 1995 he was greeted with a multi-billion-dollar budget deficit. (Welcome to the Executive Chamber, George.) In considering how to dig out from under, some means were immediately evident: eliminate the obsolete, the redundant, the inefficient and the ineffective.

In so doing, the Governor chose to lead by example. He immediately eliminated over 20 percent of the statewide exempt political patronage positions within his charge. A hiring freeze was implemented on all positions except those essential to public health and safety or funded through means other than state taxes.

The inability to manage the state workforce beyond these measures necessitated layoffs of 1,000 employees. This layoff process, which so defied logic and so offended the core sensibility of the Governor, would be the catalyst to sweeping fundamental reform of the state civil service.

In September 1995, Governor Pataki instructed me to head up a task force, including the Directors of State Operations, Governor's Office of Employee Relations, and Budget, with input from the public employee unions, to conduct a comprehensive review of the civil service system.

What followed was a series of achievements that improved the Department of Civil Service and the civil service as a whole.

Bold, New Initiatives

Transfer Legislation: The task force drafted legislation, advanced by the Governor, which would permit the state to act as a single employer, thereby allowing the Department of Civil Service to transfer employees between agencies. Linda Angello, Director of the Governor's Office of Employee Relations, and myself lobbied strenuously before a joint legislative committee and with the respective presidents of the Civil Service Employees Association and the Public Employees Federation. The transfer legislation was passed on March 29, 1996, and added Article 78 of the Civil Service Law.

Result: Through reliance on the strict hiring freeze, a newly designed early retirement incentive with multiple windows, and the new transfer process, Governor Pataki reduced the state workforce by 6,000 positions in fiscal year 1996. The number of involuntary separations was limited to 235 employees, in contrast to the thousands of layoffs resulting when Governor Cuomo vetoed an early retirement plan in 1991. Did I blink or, for the first time in decades, did common sense and compassion prevail?

Testing Provisionals: A provisional is an employee who has been appointed to a competitive position while awaiting a competitive examination; by statute the provisional appointment is limited to nine months. Many competent provisional employees were denied the right to compete and gain permanent civil service status while other questionable provisional appointments were allowed to circumvent the law and perpetuate an unseemly practice.

Result: Today, virtually all provisional employees have been tested. We have reduced the number of provisionals by 79 percent. Currently, of the 140,672 Competitive Class employees in state service, only 0.7 percent remain in provisional status--the lowest rate in the recorded history of civil service.

Promotion Testing: In January 1996, New York State had a backlog of over 600 titles for which no promotion tests had been scheduled. State managers were unable to plan for agency program needs and state employees were unable to optimize their chances for promotion.

Result: The Department of Civil Service, relying entirely on internal resources, developed and administered promotion test batteries using rigorous state-of-the-art selection methodologies. This revolutionary new approach will benefit both employees and managers by providing a more timely and efficient method of promotion. Over 30,000 candidates were given the opportunity to participate in the first promotion exams.

Timely Scoring: In 1994, the time required to report written test results for state examinations reached an average high of over 150 days.

Result: The Department of Civil Service, through improved efficiency, has cut the average time to report test results to under 60 days. Further, we are committed to improving that average whenever possible, as illustrated by the 161 examinations held on June 15, 1996 that were cleared within only 35 days.

Technological Improvements:

Civil Service Web Site established. Exam announcements are now available on the Internet and at state Department of Labor Community Service Centers throughout the state.

"Employee Test Profiles" now provide candidates with a summary indicating their performance in each subject area of the test.

Exam applicants can now register via telephone and will soon have the option of paying exam fees via credit card.

While worshipping at the altar of efficiency, we retained the fundamental principles and the best features of civil service (e.g., hiring and promotion based on merit and fitness). The Marines are not the only "few and the proud." Taxpayers, take note, we have accomplished all this with 41 percent fewer people and 62 percent less nonpersonal service dollars than we had eight years ago; we gave at the office and earn our keep! Indeed, through improved efficiency and commitment to positive change, government can work effectively.

Thank you, Governor Pataki, for setting the tone, providing the leadership, and allowing merit and fitness to be the hallmark of New York's new civil service.

Rest in peace, Teddy. Pataki's doing the right thing.