Guest column: Civil service discouragement, not reform

Originally published at the Commercial Appeal 2/17/2012.

More effective and efficient government is a laudable goal, but many of the TEAM Act’s proposals would work against that.

By Jeanne Richardson
Special to Viewpoint

The treatment of government employees has generated controversy over the past year in many statehouses across the nation. Now, with Gov. Bill Haslam’s proposal to overhaul Tennessee’s civil service system by passage of the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management (TEAM) Act of 2012, the issue has entered the forefront of politics in our state.

I applaud the governor and his staff for wanting government to be more effective and efficient. That is a laudable goal that all citizens should hope for. However, some of the proposals in the TEAM Act legislation (HB2384 and SB2246) are ill conceived.

I am particularly interested in this topic because of both my education and work experience. I began my professional career in 1971 with a job as a Child Protective Services worker for state government. I was required to investigate reports of child abuse and neglect, make recommendations about the children and their families, and sometimes in the worst circumstances, remove children from their families. There is no other position in my professional career that has been more important than providing for the safety of our children.

My knowledge of the public sector and how it works was vastly enhanced in 1980, when I added a master’s degree in public administration to my degree in social work. The curriculum included personnel administration, public finance, government bureaucracy, comparative political systems, and the role government plays in our society. Most importantly, I learned that the services performed by public employees are the backbone of our country. People who are lucky enough to be public servants should be proud, and never let politicians, the public or anyone else convince them that what they do is not essential for a free and prosperous society.

If the goal is really both the effectiveness and efficiency of government work, the focus should be on maintaining a properly trained workforce that serves the public needs in an efficacious and customer-friendly manner. Further, we should make wise use of the investment the state has made in its employees by keeping the best and the brightest of them.

The TEAM Act does not achieve these goals. Instead, it would virtually eliminate all incentives for people to become state employees, dedicated to the needs of all.

The civil service system was created decades ago to prevent any elected official from detrimentally influencing the work that state employees do for the citizens of this state. The services that these employees provide should be available without ties to any political party or elected leader. But if the TEAM Act becomes law, the administration will be allowed to hire and fire who they wish with very little oversight by the people of Tennessee. State employment will become about who you know instead of what you know.

The governor’s proposal establishes performance as the key criteria in setting salaries. However, it does not define performance or merit criteria.

Government needs to set a good example for private-sector companies in rewarding employees for good work and for their years of dedication to serving the public. We must offer good benefits to stay comparable to the private sector and enable the state to recruit the best and the brightest.

The governor’s legislative proposals include a raise for state employees of 2.5 percent, while the cost of living index has risen 3 percent this year. (U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics) For four of the last five years there have been no raises for state employees.

I think we should focus on a decent wage for governmental employees. Balancing the public budget by cutting public employee wages is never a good idea. It results in double taxation for the employees. The state should not pretend to our citizens that we can give services that we cannot afford and expect those performing these services to pay for them. If the state continues to balance the budget by suppressing wages, we will end up with poorly paid and poorly equipped state employees and more importantly, a public that is unhappy with inadequate services.

Another issue the state contends with on an ongoing basis is privatization as a means to increasing effectiveness and efficiency. Research does not, in fact, indicate that privatization does either of these things. However, when state officials can show that privatization is a better approach in a particular circumstance, we should offer some safeguards for the public employees who are affected and who have performed meritoriously over the years. These safeguards could include, but not limited to, contract language that employees be given special hiring consideration and that they not be adversely affected by decreases in wages so that the private entity can make more profit.

We would probably all agree that we have been fortunate in our country in having some great public servants who had led us to a great quality of life in Tennessee. Let’s make sure that we keep such employees in the future.

Rep. Jeanne Richardson of Memphis is a Democrat who represents District 89 in the Tennessee House of Representatives.

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