Several years in the making, Delaware's creation of a Cabinet-level Department of Technology and Information (DTI) was finished in May. The agency's makeover goes beyond a new name, a new leader and a new set of mandates from Gov. Ruth Ann Minner.

DTI employees now work outside the protections of the state's civil service system. The word now is "performance," and DTI employees were told during the transition that pay is now tied to performance. The DTI shares its exemption from the merit system with the state's Economic Development Office.

One might think the new arrangement would have ominous overtones in a culture often criticized for not valuing performance the way the private sector does. But 80 percent of the former Office of Information Services' employees agreed to give up their merit status to join the new DTI, said Tom Jarrett, DTI secretary and vice president of NASCIO. Switching to a performance-based pay scale didn't result in massive layoffs -- the remaining 20 percent of employees retired, took positions in other state agencies or moved away.

Delaware's decision to make the DTI's work force exempt from civil service protections may be the latest example of a government making such a move, but the state isn't alone. Other states, including Florida and Georgia, have made drastic changes to civil service protections.

Proponents say these moves boost efficiency. But opponents contend there's no evidence to back those assertions, and efficiency decreases because employees no longer feel secure in their jobs.

Civil Service Evolution

The civil service was created in the late 1800s to classify government jobs and remove them from the influence of patronage -- a real problem in the fledgling government structure. Also, a Civil Service Commission receives the task of administering a system based on merit rather than political connections. Potential employees were required to pass various tests to work for the government. The goal was to lay groundwork for a competent and permanent government bureaucracy.

Now, however, critics of the system say civil service rules combined with collective bargaining agreements tie agency managers' hands. The argument is that the civil service system has become a de facto seniority system, where the person with the most seniority gets promoted, regardless of skill or competence.

"The civil service structure -- having spent my whole career in business -- is amazing to me," said Jarrett. "I'm happy I never really had to deal with it because we started right out with our move to a new structure."

Jarrett came to state government from Verizon, where he was director of government, education and philanthropy affairs.

The transformation of an agency embedded in state government into a Cabinet-level department staffed by noncivil-service employees has raised a few eyebrows, Jarrett said, mostly because of the political strings attached to such a move.

"It's very different," he said. "We're kind of this island -- right now at least for Delaware -- surrounded by the government bureaucracy that's still out there. The only other organization that is completely exempt, in some things, is the Georgia Technology Authority, which is structured differently from us."

"What we've done is pretty amazing," he said. "I've talked to more of my counterparts, and I think they would kill to do what we've done. I know some that have brought the subject up, and have probably been swiftly shot down. This is a Legislature that passed [the enabling] legislation almost unanimously, and fortunately, we've had tremendous support from them and the governor as we've worked through this process."

As of July 1, every employee created a "performance agreement" with his or her immediate supervisor, Jarrett said, and employees know that to keep their jobs, they must meet their objectives.

Shane Peterson  |  Associate Editor