Our Editorial: Reform civil service

The Detroit News

A whole lot of government reforms should come out of the Flint water crisis. Chief among them should be a reform of Michigan’s civil service system.

After the scope of the government bungling in Flint was revealed, Gov. Rick Snyder forced the resignation of the head of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency most culpable for allowing dangerous levels of lead to leach into the city’s water system.

Snyder was able to dump Dan Wyant because he was a gubernatorial appointee.

But those responsible for misreading water tests, for not ensuring Flint was adding the correct chemical mix to its water, and for not recognizing sooner a crisis was in the making were outside the governor’s immediate reach.

He was able to transfer one employee and suspend two others, but because they enjoy civil service protection, actually putting them off the state payroll requires a long and elaborate process of paperwork, evidentiary hearings and appeals.

Civil service in Michigan is an absolute mess.

The state constitution calls for a four-person commission, made up of two Republicans and two Democrats, all appointed by the governor. Their charge is to classify all state positions and set pay rates. The commission’s core responsibility, as spelled out by the law, is to encourage a competitive system of merit that assures the best employees are hired and are competitively evaluated and compensated. Its original purpose was to rid public hiring of nepotism, cronyism and corruption.

But it’s moved a long way from that constitutional mandate.

The commission, which operates independently from the executive and legislative branches and commands 1 percent of the state payroll for its operations, has instead created a 1930s vision of a public workplace.

Instead of merit, seniority is now the driving force in pay and promotions.

That is a direct result of a Civil Service Commission ruling in the early 1970s to allow workers covered by civil service rules to also engage in collective bargaining with the state.

That gives them a double layer of insulation from accountability and discipline. And it removes the incentive for good work.

Over the years, civil service rules have been blended with labor contracts, so that getting rid of an inept state employee is nearly impossible. Most often, the incompetent are moved into a corner and forgotten until they quit or retire.

The state needs to start over. The commission should undertake a review of its rules to bring them in line with a 21st century workforce.

It should restore the emphasis on merit, and provide a more certain path for discipline and dismissal. No worker should be under the assumption that there is nothing he or she can do to get fired.

The state Supreme Court recently ruled that civil service workers are covered by the state’s new right-to-work law and can leave a union if they choose. That was a good first step.

The best reform would be to eliminate collective bargaining for civil service employees. It is redundant, and does not serve taxpayer interests.

That may take a ballot initiative, but it is the surest way to restore accountability to Michigan’s workforce.