When states and cities try to reform a major element of their management systems, obstacles can often prove insurmountable. Politics get in the way or agency managers block or slow down action -- particularly when they’re never brought in in the first place.

That doesn’t mean reforms aren’t possible. One example stands out: Tennessee’s civil service reform. We thought important lessons could be learned from that experience, and so we turned to Rebecca Hunter, commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Human Resources, to give us the lowdown.

Her voice rang with pride as she took us through the steps in a process that has transformed the state’s civil service system. Her tone was well-deserved, especially when we considered the way the state’s personnel system had worked a few years ago.

Back then, Tennessee’s human resources officials had to cope with an abject state system. Managers were limited to hiring only when they advertised for jobs. They then gave applicants a test that was scored on what Hunter calls an “antiquated system.” Managers had to hire from the pool of people who got the top five scores, which might or might not have had any correlation to the skills necessary for the open job. What’s more, the whole system was based on seniority instead of performance. So, when it came time to make a promotion, managers could only select one of the three most senior candidates rather than the person with the best knowledge, skill or competencies.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who assumed office in 2011, appointed Hunter to a newly formed Department of Human Resources, and encouraged her to take on these issues. Three big efforts were initiated to give the state the tools and guidance it needed to make real change. The first started at the top: The governor asked all the agency heads to do a top-to-bottom review of their human resources processes, including asking whether reforms were needed and if so, if they were being done as effectively as possible. “Every cabinet member said we have to do something about our HR practices,” Hunter says. “To have all 23 of these men and women agree about the same thing was pretty huge.”

Step two involved the commissioner of finance, who sent out a survey to all executive branch agencies asking for their recommendations to make state government more effective and efficient. This is a particularly important element for any government that seeks to make significant change. All too often, reforms come exclusively from the top down, and managers have a strong sense that the people making the mandates don’t understand what their agency really needs.

Third, and along very much the same lines, Hunter and the state’s lieutenant governor joined forces and went on a statewide listening tour, asking managers for ideas about how to recruit and retain the best talent. On the tour, Hunter was wary that some of the people she was talking with might hold back on the unvarnished truth out of concern of offending her. “I’d say, ‘I’m new. You won’t hurt my feelings.’”

Over and over again, state officials told Hunter that the same people kept showing up on their list of applicants -- they were people the managers had seen before and knew weren’t good candidates for the organization.

This was the groundwork that led to the Tennessee Excellence, Accountability and Management Act, which turned things around dramatically. The state initiated a new hiring system that stopped depending on ineffective tests and turned instead to a requirement that agencies clarify the knowledge, skills and competencies each position requires.

Hand in hand with that came an overhaul of the state’s performance evaluation system. Today, Tennessee has established performance outcomes for each job that are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and time-sensitive. The acronym is very nice. These are the state’s SMART goals.

Even better, in case of layoffs, job performance overtook seniority in decisions about who would keep a job and who wouldn’t.

The new law enabled the HR department to promise agencies that they would get applicants with the appropriate qualifications. This had a side effect that proved to be a bit problematic. Instead of getting five applicants from which to pick, suddenly there was the potential of hundreds. Using performance measures, the state developed tools to filter the list down from the “qualified people” to the “most qualified people.”

Beyond the reform itself, the other notion to be learned from Tennessee is this: It’s not enough to change laws and processes and then sit back and hope everything works out for the best. The lack of oversight can turn -- and has turned -- many a seemingly worthwhile reform sour.

In Tennessee, Hunter says her office wants to know what the performance evaluations look like. “We’ve been reading through these and seeing how they’ve evolved,” she reports. “Each year they’re getting better. We’re trying to drive a culture of excellence.”