When Civil Service and Politics Collide

New Jersey is fighting over relatively small civil-service reforms. That shouldn't be surprising, given who's proposing them.
May 15, 2014 AT 5:01 PM
By Charles Chieppo  |  Contributor
Principal of Chieppo Strategies and former policy director for Massachusetts’s Executive Office for Administration and Finance

The political director of New Jersey's largest public-employee union called an earlier version of recent changes to the state's civil-service rules "the most radical to the ... system since its inception."

The statement was more than a little hyperbolic, since the changes consist merely of allowing some state jobs to be grouped into "bands." State workers now can be promoted from one job to another within the same band without having to take a civil-service test. Exams are still required for hiring.

In a perfect world, these changes, which do not require legislation and were approved by New Jersey's Civil Service Commission, would go much further. But this is not a perfect world, and therein lies the rub.

Civil-service rules govern how public employees are hired, promoted and fired. The testing regime was designed to promote merit-based hiring and promotion and to protect workers against discrimination, patronage and political retribution. But the world has changed since civil service was introduced in the late-19th century. One example is the rise of public-employee unions. Nationally, more than a third of public-sector workers are part of organized labor, and the percentage is higher than that in New Jersey.

In addition, well over a century of legislative tinkering has taken its toll on the original goals of civil service. In Massachusetts, for example, it's typical for civil-service test results to be recalculated based on 13 "preferences" such as "non-resident children of police or firefighters injured in the line of duty." As a result, when Boston sought to hire 25 firefighters in 2000, one test-taker who scored 100 landed at number 1,837 on the hiring list.

There can be little doubt that civil service needs a serious overhaul. But the success of government reforms often depends on who's proposing them. In New Jersey's case, it's Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican who has made civil-service reform a focus of his second term.

Allegations that Christie's aides purposely created massive traffic jams in the borough of Fort Lee by closing access lanes to the George Washington Bridge as political payback to Fort Lee's mayor give life to normally hollow claims that any changes to civil service mark an effort to return to the spoils system. Both houses of New Jersey's legislature passed resolutions earlier this year in an attempt to halt the changes, and legislators are now thinking about pursuing an injunction.

Christie-administration officials say the civil-service changes will streamline the system and save money. They're right about that. I was the policy director in the office that oversees Massachusetts' finances and personnel during the post-9/11 recession, and my colleagues and I yearned for the ability to match workers with needs within job bands rather than being constrained by traditional civil-service rules.

Christie claims he had no prior knowledge of the George Washington Bridge fiasco. Perhaps that's true, but as long as the scandal dogs him, he'll be less able to build public support for the changes and deflect the warnings of political retribution and out-of-control patronage that invariably accompany efforts to reform civil service.