Civil Disservice

Government's 800-pound gorilla is still in the room.

by / October 1, 2007

There are numerous reasons why government continues to struggle when it comes to embracing the transformative power of IT: funding constraints. Regressive procurement policies. Short-sighted politics. But perhaps the most destructive impediment to IT success is government's civil service system.

Authors David Osborne and Ted Gaebler described it as worse than a line item budget system in their 1992 book Reinventing Government. First introduced in the 1880s, civil service has become embedded in federal and state constitutional laws, making it difficult to change.

And it hasn't changed much since the 19th century.  Its staying power is linked with two basic and related reasons, writes Jonathan Walters in Life After Civil Service Reform. The existing system is incredibly complex, and it's backed by a powerful and entrenched set of interests "in the form of public employee unions, and associations ..."

For CIOs, the "tyranny of civil service" as Walters calls it, means the deck is stacked against them when it comes to trying to push innovation and entrepreneurship within their organizations. At a recent roundtable held at the Government Technology Conference in Albany, N.Y., a group of state and local CIOs decried the stifling rules of civil service, in particular, for the state of New York. The state's new CIO, Melodie Mayberry-Stewart, called the current system a "drag" on IT entrepreneurship in government.

Other CIOs described how intelligent IT workers could not move up because the civil service exam was designed to assess their skills. The public sector's civil service system is notorious for not being nimble enough to keep up with the changes in skill sets needed to run today's sophisticated and increasingly complex IT systems. At the same time, younger IT workers are avoiding government because it refuses to pay for performance, and instead rewards seniority while compensating according to job title.

The system's severest critics note that rather than attract the best and brightest, it "lards government with the best of the desperate." And the problem is getting worse as a massive wave of baby boomer retirements are about to spread across the public sector.

While a number of states have chipped away at the problem, just three -- Texas, Georgia and Florida -- have gone the full distance, scrapped the traditional civil service system and replaced it with reformed versions that closely model what exists in the private sector. Delaware is unique in that its IT department exists entirely outside the state's existing civil service system.

But these are the exceptions. Based on the remarks made by CIOs last week in Albany and elsewhere around the country whenever I travel, the problem remains entrenched and fiercely protected by the unions and others with stakes in the status quo.

Tod Newcombe Senior Editor

With more than 20 years of experience covering state and local government, Tod previously was the editor of Public CIO, e.Republic’s award-winning publication for information technology executives in the public sector. He is now a senior editor for Government Technology.

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