Two years ago, Colorado was facing a workforce crisis familiar to governments across the country. One-third of its 33,000-person public labor force was eligible for retirement. At the same time, the state’s 92-year-old hiring system was hopelessly antiquated. When Kathy Nesbitt took over as the state director of personnel in 2011, she had her work cut out for her.
Nesbitt, who had spent her career in private-sector labor relations, most recently as Kaiser Permanente’s director of human resources in Denver, immediately set about overhauling Colorado’s outdated system. Take, for example, the rule that supervisors could only interview three candidates for a job before making their selection. If they weren’t wowed by anyone? Too bad. “It was so structured and so rigorous,” Nesbitt says. “I was blown away by those types of rules being in place.”
Making Nesbitt’s reform efforts even more difficult was the fact that Colorado’s rigid personnel system was actually enshrined in the state constitution and would require an amendment to make any changes. Three prior attempts to reform the state’s hiring practices had failed. So Nesbitt started talking with people. She spent endless meetings with lawmakers to create a bipartisan bill in 2011. She and her team also met with the state employee labor union to help craft the language in a way that everyone could agree upon. She traveled across the state and met with more than 6,000 employees to talk about the proposed changes. Their support helped the amendment pass in 2012 with 56 percent of the vote.
Enacted this year, Nesbitt’s “Talent Agenda” reforms have already made a major impact. Hiring times, which previously had taken up to three months, have been cut in half. Supervisors have greater flexibility in interviewing and hiring. A new merit-based pay system rewards an employee’s performance and years of service.
Part of Nesbitt’s ingenuity and tenacity stem from her experience in the private sector, says MaryKathryn Hurd, the legislative liaison for the state Department of Health Care Policy and Financing. “She had the ability to look at the state system in ways that those who are in the system can’t. When she’d get the response back that, ‘This is how we’ve always done it,’ she had ability to say, ‘That’s not good enough.’”
Now Nesbitt is turning her attention to another challenge: retaining quality employees. She’s focusing on performance management and keeping her workforce engaged. “We still have miles to go,” she says.