Thursday, July 20, 2006

On the Personnel Initiative...

During the investigation into hiring practices in Gov. Fletcher's administration, there's been a lot of talk about what's called the Governor's Personnel Initiative. If Fletcher's case makes it to trial, which is doubtful given the strength of the recently filed motion to dismiss, no doubt there will be a lot more talk about the initiative.

The Democrats in the AG's office have characterized this program as a corrupt political scheme, but they are wrong. We'll let others determine the appropriateness of the "disciples" nickname that was given to the personnel administrators, but in truth the program is definitely a "good government" initiative and is actually designed to root out the vestiges of Democratic cronyism that still plagued state government even after a Republican was elected governor.

By now everyone knows how the merit system is supposed to work. The administration has control of a limited number of appointive, or non-merit jobs. These appointees serve at the pleasure of the governor and are, to be blunt, political appointments. These jobs include both policy makers and support staff for the governor's office, cabinet secretaries, and so forth. The bulk of the jobs, however, are merit system jobs, and those hired for them are considered to be career employees that can't be fired at the change of an administration.

No matter how vehemently the Democrats may deny it, they have abused the merit system since it was put into place more than 40 years ago. One has a better chance of surviving a stroll through Harlem while yelling racial epithets than of being a Republican and getting a merit system job. As a result of decades of patronage hiring and promotions, Democrats dominate all levels of state government, particularly the mid-level bureaucracy of branch managers and section supervisors. These are the officials who do most of the hiring. Their loyalties lie not with the current administration in Frankfort, but to those who got them their jobs.

Even after the Fletcher administration had been in place for several months, Republicans were not getting a fair shake at the merit system jobs. Those who interviewed and hired applicants were more likely to seek and take advice from their local Democratic Party county chairman than their directors and commissioners.

So it made sense for hiring to be centralized in each cabinet. It's unconscionable that the Democrats were still running their own shadow patronage system in a Republican administration. Plus, the Democrats already in place in state government were (and still are) doing their best to undermine and sabotage just about every initiative the administration puts forth.

The merit system prohibits personnel decisions based on political registration, but the law is mute on governmental philosophy. And if you are trying to enact change in government, it makes sense to bring like-minded people on board. With many of the merit system jobs actually being decision-making positions, you need people who are on the same page.

For instance, let's say your policy is to make Kentucky's state resort parks profitable. It makes no sense to hire people who think the state should continue to subsidize the lodges and restaurants with tax dollars, especially if they are in management or budgetary positions.

If your goal is to tighten restrictions on social programs, do you really want counselors who are going to attempt to qualify as many people as possible for the programs?

And if you are looking to expand what the local highway garages do, why hire county superintendents and maintenance engineers who want to contract out services like mowing, sign replacement and striping?

Yet that was what was happening. The Democrat mid-level managers, who owe their jobs to the Democrat patronage machine, were still oiling that machine by hiring their own. The new hires still owed their allegiances to the opponents.

"They're still hiring too damn many Democrats!" That was the exclamation of one influential Fletcher supporter during a conversation among party leaders in late 2004.

Did some of the Fletcher appointees take the hiring deal too far? Most assuredly, and those who did so found themselves out of work as the administration conducted its own investigation into hiring practices. That was a measured and appropriate response.

But in concept, a centralized hiring office, with top-down management, remains a good idea. Merit system restrictions are good and worthwhile, but a governor and his or her appointees should be able to hire people with a similar philosophy of governing. That can transcend party lines. You can be a Democrat and still want the lodges, restaurants and campgrounds at state parks to turn a profit.

How the role of the Personnel Initiative will play out as the governor' criminal case continues remains to be seen. But this is a good policy initiative that shouldn't be discarded just because Greg Stumbo didn't like it.


At 11:16 PM, July 21, 2006, Anonymous David Adams said...

Very good post.


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