Ask Bob Lavigna to pick the single accomplishment he’s proudest of, and he’s stymied. Highlights don’t interest him much. Nor does publicity of any sort. The hallmark of Lavigna’s public service career, and of his nine years as head of Wisconsin’s Division of Merit Recruitment and Selection, has been an unassuming but dogged determination to be responsive to his customers: those working for the state, those looking for state jobs, and the agency managers who rely on Lavigna’s division to help them find and keep a supply of good people.
It’s not that Lavigna is afraid to make bold moves. He and his staff have pioneered in efforts to streamline job listing and candidate testing and hiring. They have instituted an innovative system of walk-in testing and allowing candidates for certain jobs to self-qualify online. In an era of tight labor markets, they have experimented in providing custom-designed job searches for hard-to-fill positions, even allowing agencies to make on-the-spot job offers to qualified candidates.
In the end, though, Lavigna’s contribution to public personnel can’t be tied to any one achievement. It flows from his fundamental attitude toward the job. He took over the division directorship in Wisconsin in 1991, after working on personnel issues for the U.S. General Accounting Office in Washington, D.C. At that time, Lavigna was already among those arguing that civil service systems needed to get out of the “command and control” business — an approach that frustrated many line agencies to the point where they wished the central personnel bureaucracy would simply go away.
One of the division’s first initiatives upon Lavigna’s arrival was a customer service survey that asked managers in all the line agencies what they really needed from the personnel office to help them in their work. “We thought it was important to check in with those people who are really impacted; the ones providing services to citizens,” says Lavigna. And what he heard, he took to heart. “The feedback we got was that we needed to extend more flexibility to agencies.”
So Lavigna began working with the legislature on such major initiatives as eliminating the state’s antiquated “rule of five,” under which agencies were tightly restricted in the roster of candidates they could consider for a vacant position. The “rule of five” was replaced with a much more flexible system that the agencies can customize to their own needs. While extending that kind of autonomy to agencies still scares many states — they fear legal trouble around hot-button issues such as adverse impact and minority hiring — Lavigna insists there’s no reason to be fearful. “If you give agencies authority,” he argues, “they’re not going to misuse it. They’re going to use it to make the process work better for everybody.”
It has been a winning strategy for Wisconsin. Not only have the agencies avoided any serious legal trouble, they are hiring minorities at rates double their overall representation in the state labor pool, and building a record of responsive recruitment practices equal to that of any private-sector company. Wisconsin’s public work force boasts a minuscule annual turnover rate of just 5 percent.
If Lavigna’s approach to his work is low-key, his influence has spread beyond the borders of Wisconsin. He is currently chairing the National Association of State Personnel Executives’ effort to develop performance measures for state and local personnel systems. This initiative also includes creating an online bank of “best personnel practices” in cooperation with the International Personnel Management Association.
In an era when many have suggested “blowing up” their civil service systems, Bob Lavigna is proving there’s a better way: cut people loose to make the system you’ve got work better.
— Glenn Oakley
Photos by Michael Kienitz