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Wisconsin’s Abolition of Civil Service: Reform or Cronyism?

Whether Wisconsin's approach makes hiring for government jobs more efficient -- or simply politicizes it -- will influence if and how other states revisit their civil service systems.

If you like political patronage, you’ll be pleased with what’s happening in Wisconsin. A new law that took effect July 1 brings much of the state’s century-old civil service system to an end. The return of old-fashioned political hiring may be the result.

Rather than requiring job applicants to take a qualifying exam, initial assessments will follow a résumé-based system. Hiring decisions will be centralized in the Department of Administration. The law defines just cause for termination, making it easier to fire employees, while also curtailing their ability to appeal such decisions. Seniority will no longer offer protection against layoffs.

The law’s sponsors say their intent was to modernize the hiring process, making it faster and more efficient at a time of high turnover thanks to the aging of baby boom employees. Nationwide, roughly a third of state workers are already eligible for retirement. Under the new system, Wisconsin aims to fill vacant positions within 60 days, rather than the old deadline of 105 days. 

There’s no question that civil service practices can calcify in ways that leave prospective employees frustrated by lengthy applications and long waits to get hired. “It’s imperative we’re able to attract and hire good workers more quickly,” says state Sen. Roger Roth, a lead sponsor of the new law.

But not everyone is so happy. Critics of the law say it’s just the latest step in dismantling workers’ rights, something they claim has been an ongoing project since the GOP takeover of state government back in 2010. Wisconsin has become a right-to-work state, and Gov. Scott Walker drew protests and national attention with the 2011 law that eviscerated public-sector unions by ending collective bargaining rights for most employees. 

“The irony is, when Walker was pushing through Act 10, which took away most union rights for public-sector workers, he said that those workers didn’t need union protection because of Wisconsin’s great civil service law,” says Matt Rothschild, executive director of the Wisconsin Democracy Campaign, a watchdog group. “Now, five years later, he takes the ax to that, too.”

The exodus of veteran state employees accelerated even before the law took effect. The fear going forward is that qualified workers will be discouraged from applying for jobs, calculating that their odds of getting one will be hurt if they aren’t campaign contributors or don’t have friends on the inside. Shortly after the bill was introduced last fall, the state’s own personnel agency warned in a memo to the governor’s office that the changes would increase the number of qualified applicants who are turned away, while pushing a greater number of unqualified applicants to the interview stage. “This allows them to do quick hiring of people they like, who are loyal to them,” says Paul Secunda, who directs the labor and employment law program at Marquette University. “It leads to a government that is not very efficient or effective.”

The Walker administration insists such complaints are overblown. Statutes are still in place that protect against cronyism, says Stacey Rolston, deputy administrator of the division of personnel management. “You still have to have hires that are defensible, because they are subject to appeal at several different levels,” she says. “Really, all that’s changed is our mechanism of bringing people in.”

There’s a case to be made for patronage. It creates more accountability for the governor if an agency isn’t functioning well. But hiring and promoting workers on a basis other than traditional merit runs the risk that an administration will better serve its political donors and allies than the public at large.

Whether Wisconsin’s new approach ends up making personnel management more efficient, or simply politicizes it, will go a long way toward determining whether standard civil service procedures are revisited elsewhere. “We’ve been talking with other states about what we’re doing,” Rolston says. “We’re hoping that we can build a model that others can find useful.”

Alan Greenblatt is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @AlanGreenblatt.
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