Guest Column from Rep. Jim Steineke: Civil Service Reform Modernizes State’s Hiring Process

When Governor La Follette approved Wisconsin’s civil service law in 1905, the slogan used to promote the change was “the best shall serve the state.” Since then, Wisconsin has had a long, proud history of a strong civil service system for its employees.  Over a century later however, it’s time to update this system to better reflect a changing workforce. Our civil service reforms will help our state remain competitive in its hiring practices and reward employees for their service.  

Wisconsin is facing a two-fold dilemma: an aging workforce and an antiquated hiring process. One in every 12 state employees is already eligible for retirement, and 23 percent of them are projected to become eligible in 5 years. Within 10 years, 40 percent of the state’s employees will be eligible for retirement. 

Moreover, the hiring process used by the state is based on an era when there was a need to professionalize government work and insulate workers from political pressure. We wholeheartedly agree with these goals, however we also need a system that adopts best management principles from the private sector. We shouldn’t be relying on an exam process that is easily manipulated and an inaccurate representation of an individual’s skillset. And we shouldn’t expect applicants to wait for months before finding out if they have an interview or are offered a job. 

Wisconsin is in direct competition with the private sector to hire the highest quality employees, and when the state is not as nimble as the private sector, we lose. Ultimately, like any other employer, the State of Wisconsin wants to attract and retain the most capable of employees.

 Our proposal changes the state’s hiring process by switching to a resume-based application process and implementing a 60-day hiring goal. It also contains an initiative to reward employees who are performing exceptionally well by instating a merit bonus system.  

Another common complaint we’ve heard from state agency officials is the fluid definition of “just cause.” Under current law, an employee who has received permanent status can only be terminated or demoted for “just cause.” However, because there is no clear definition, a cloud of confusion currently hangs over employees. As a result, a state employee spent almost all working hours watching pornography yet had his job restored because he wasn’t sufficiently warned. Another example is a state employee who used illegal drugs with a parolee and eventually received his job back through arbitration. 

To most of us, common sense would tell us that these employees should be replaced with more qualified and ethical employees. Unfortunately, an open definition of “just cause” can result in examples like these. Under our proposal, “just cause” is clearly defined and includes a list of egregious acts that may result in immediate dismissal such as possession of drugs, theft, physical assault and the display or distribution of pornography. 

Even after an employee has engaged in obvious acts of indiscretion, it can take years to officially discipline the individual. With our reforms, there will be a clear, three-step appeals process that aims to reduce the dispute time by a year.

 The overarching purpose of this legislation is to proactively address a looming exodus of state employees as the baby boom generation nears retirement age, a problem facing public and private employers alike. Our reforms make it easier to hire the most qualified individuals and create an environment that encourages them to stay. We want to ensure that public service is a desirable career, and we recognize that the State is a unique employer and should without a doubt provide employees with protections from political pressure, while attracting, hiring and retaining the best employees to work for the citizens of our state.