PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Personnel and Performance: How to fix civil service, not blow it up 1998 HONOREE

George C. Sinnott, Commissioner, New York State Department of Civil Service

When George C. Sinnott arrived as commissioner of the New York State Department of Civil Service in January 1995, he made two interesting discoveries. The first was the marble bathroom and shower stall built adjacent to his office by a predecessor — a touch of opulence that materialized just as the state was firing thousands of employees. The second was the 27 reports issued since the early 1970s on the need to reform civil service in New York.

George C. SinnottWhile he marveled at the bathroom as a symbol of his predecessors' priorities, he was much more interested in the reports. Sinnott dusted off and read every one of them, and he laughs as he describes each: "Early reports said `Fix it.' Later reports, said, `Please fix it.' Reports after that said, `Fix it already!' The last few said, `Would you just fix the damn thing!'" Which is exactly what Sinnott decided to do.

But not before being tested on the battlefield of Albany's famous turf wars. Upon taking office, Governor George E. Pataki had decided to name yet another task force on civil service reform, and its chair apparent was not Sinnott, but the governor's Michigan-imported budget director, Patricia A. Woodworth. In Woodworth's view, only one strategy made sense: Blow up the civil service system.

Sinnott's view was very different. First, he was sure the state needed civil service — to "ensure fitness and fairness," he says. Second, having cleaned up personnel messes in the town of Hempstead and in Nassau County, New York, he was sure that New York's system could be fixed. With a bowling-ball build and bulldog tenacity, Sinnott proved to be an early (and rare) match for the not-shy budget director, arguing successfully that civil service ought to head the task force. Borrowing heavily from those 27 previous reports, Sinnott proceeded to lay out a plan for civil service recovery that is a monument to brevity, clarity and resolve: Not only did the report outline what needed to be done, it gave deadlines for each step in the process.

The next move was obvious: "I brought every employee in the department in in groups of 100," says Sinnott. "I told them what I thought of the place and it's being such a disgrace, and how I also thought that they were a talented lot and how we were going to hold our heads up high and turn it around." Early victories were significant. Working with the state's public employee unions, Sinnott won legislation making it easier to reassign employees rather than lay them off. "In 1991 and 1992, Governor Cuomo laid off 6,000 employees, and every one of them hit the bricks," says Sinnott. "In 1996, we reduced state employment by 7,400, and 235 people were laid off." The next year, 6,000 positions were cut with only 32 layoffs.

In a state known for testy labor-management relations, the change in approach was duly noted. "What George Sinnott brings to the job is a genuine concern for people," says Danny Donohue, head of the state's largest public employee union. "They're not just numbers on a computer printout."

The litany of successes since is impressive: Using mostly in-house talent, the department went from a virtually 100 percent paper-based system to almost 100 percent electronic. The department has wiped out backlogs in testing; now has reams of up-to-date job lists; posts jobs and tests on its Web site; has "broad-banded" dozens of job titles; has developed targeted recruitment plans for high-need skills (the state actually has an OVERFLOW of applicants for computer-related jobs); and is now working aggressively with local governments to bring them up to civil service speed as well. Sinnott's explanation for his progress where his predecessors seemed to get nowhere is simple: "Hey, I'm a public personnel guy; it's what I do."

— Jonathan Walters
Photo by David M. Jennings