Are Civil-Service Rules the Enemy of Employee Engagement?

There's a striking pattern among the states, and it suggests that we need to take a new look the systems that govern public workers.
by | February 15, 2017

Howard Risher

A consultant focusing on public-sector pay and performance

This is an invitation. It was prompted by a recent Gallup report, "State of Local and State Government Workers' Engagement in the U.S.," which includes two lists. One shows public employees' level of engagement with their work in each state, while the second shows the percentage of state and local employees who are what Gallup calls "actively disengaged." Two maps that show the patterns, using different shading, caught my attention.

As the maps illustrate starkly, most of the states with the highest levels of public-employee engagement are in the South. Only Idaho and Wyoming break the pattern. The states with the highest levels of active disengagement -- workers who are so unhappy at work that they "undermine what their engaged coworkers accomplish," as Gallup puts it -- are Connecticut, Michigan, New Jersey, New York, Ohio and my home state of Pennsylvania. All six of these states' levels of active disengagement are at 20 percent or higher. (A handful of states are not included because too few employees were surveyed.)

The only explanation for this pattern that occurred to me was that the six states with the worst engagement scores have one thing in common: All of them have comparatively old and regimented civil-service systems. I know that the basic civil-service law in Pennsylvania has remained fundamentally unchanged since 1941.

A state that stands out on the other side of the ledger is Indiana. According to Gallup, only 15 percent of public employees in that state are actively disengaged, while three of its surrounding states -- Illinois, Ohio and Michigan -- are among those with the lowest engagement levels. I did a little research and learned that the percentage of government workers in Indiana who belong to unions is relatively low and that pay for performance was introduced a decade ago. That makes the work experience different.

If I'm wrong in interpreting this pattern, I invite readers to correct me. Surprisingly, I have not found any source of research that documents the differences or evaluates the impact of civil-service regulations on public employees' morale or the functioning of government.

There is plenty of research, though, documenting that in organizations both public and private high levels of employee engagement are associated with better performance on a number of metrics, including safety, quality and productivity. Poor performance on those measures increases costs. That suggests that if public employers adopted strategies to raise their workers' engagement levels, they would achieve savings that could easily cover the costs of those strategies.

Take staffing, for example. As Mark Funkhouser wrote recently in Governing, "the topic of recruiting, retaining and rewarding good government employees is invariably a top concern" among public officials at meetings the magazine convenes, and they "tell us over and over that their agencies are fighting a losing battle." Staffing problems are clearly affected by civil-service regulations.

Indeed, at each stage of a government worker's career, civil-service systems impact their working lives. The regulations typically govern not only the hiring process but also career progression, management of performance, pay increases and most work-related problems. The regulations are also important in defining an employee's relationship with this or her supervisor. A growing number of research studies shows that that relationship is a key to high performance. My own experience tells me civil-service laws and regulations limit the manager's influence, inhibit the response to operational problems and contribute to a culture that inhibits employee performance.

A different but similarly universal problem in government is dealing with poor performers or employees engaged in outright misconduct. That's a problem for private employers, of course, but typically those situations are handled quietly, confidentially and quickly. It's a far different story in government. The U.S. Office of Personnel Management recently issued a "guidance" statement for federal managers dealing with problem employees that ran on for 22 pages. I have to ask: Is that really necessary?

At every level of government, problem employees receive far more attention than those who make significant contributions. That's necessitated, again, by regulations. Clearly, a more effective process for managing problem employees would contribute to a more positive and productive work environment.

None of this is to argue that our civil-service laws should be eliminated. Employees continue to have a need for protection from abusive managers. However, its far less likely today that the abuses common a century ago will reoccur. If anything, "merit" and efficiency are more prominent concerns today. In light of the staffing problems, leaders have to appreciate the importance of positive work-management practices.

Several states have moved to reform their systems to reduce controls and constraints and provide managers with greater flexibility. My purpose is to argue for research to document and assess workforce-management policies and practices that influence an employee's work experience and to take advantage of the opportunity to compare the impact of those practices across state lines. We need a better understanding than we have of the story behind the Gallup maps.


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