A little old-fashioned patronage isn't the world's worst sin.
Ernie Fletcher, Kentucky's first GOP governor since the 1970s, offers no apologies for trying to help loyal Republicans find work with the state. "They probably have been cut out for the last 30 years," he said recently. The problem is that members of his administration steered hundreds of jobs to Republicans in ways that may have circumvented the state's civil service requirements. Now, Fletcher's administration is under investigation by the state attorney general-- who, of course, is a Democrat.
It does look bad, and comes in the context of several embarrassing patronage revelations popping out this year. Spokane Mayor Jim West allegedly offered city jobs to men he met in online chat rooms. In Illinois, the national capital of clout, Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley amused residents by professing to be shocked that city employees had received extra pay and promotions in exchange for political work, while two state cabinet members admitted they got their jobs with the help of a fundraiser for Governor Rod Blagojevich.
All of these cases have provided fodder for predictable outrage. A public workers' union official in Kentucky calls the Fletcher mess "the most blatant abuse of the merit system that I've seen in 20 years." He may be right--the first indictments have already come down- -but maybe that's beside the point. Shouldn't a governor bring in his own people to help run the state, especially those such as Fletcher or Blagojevich, coming in after a quarter-century or more of the other party's control?
Civil service rules were meant to clean up the corruption, favoritism and incompetence that often marked the old political spoils system. Patronage abuses are hard to defend, but over time, civil service rigidity has engendered its own set of problems, with public employees insulated both from firing and voter anger at the ballot box. "In both systems, those in power will attempt to use city money to buy votes," says Fred Siegel, author of a new book about Rudy Giuliani and the management of New York City. "But in the case of civil servants, they're immune from the consequences of failure."
Breaking the rules as they stand is never a good idea, but maybe in the case of government hiring, the rules can stand changing. No one wants politicians to be able to undermine the performance of executive agencies through cronyism, but there's a case to be made that allowing elected officials to make more discretionary hires for which they are held personally accountable would make government more responsive. It's the governor or mayor who should take the heat when things go wrong, and if it's the boss's own people who messed up, there's less quibbling about who deserves the blame.
Civil service protections, after all, are not the goal of good government. Better performance is.