Public Personnel Management; 5th edition; by Norma M Riccucci

Book Title:  Public Personnel Management; 5th edition; by Norma M Riccucci

Chapter 1:  Public Human Resources Management:  How We Get Where We Are Today.

Stephen E. Condrey, Ph.D., is senior associate and program director for human resource management with the University of Georgia’s Carl Vinson Institute of Government. He is also adjunct professor of public administration and policy in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. He has over a quarter of a century of professional experience in human resource management and has consulted nationally and internationally with over 700 organizations concerning personnel-related issues. He presently serves as editor-in-chief of the Review of Public Personnel Administration and is the editor of the Handbook of Human Resource Management in Government, third edition (2010, Jossey-Bass).

There is perhaps no area of public administration that has experienced greater change, professionalization, and controversy over the past four decades than public human resource management. The purpose of this introductory chapter is to explicate this phenomenon and set the stage for the chapters that follow.

This chapter first describes five models of public human resource management service delivery. The chapter will then discuss four fairly recent events and how the influence of these events shapes the current practice of public human resource management. The four events are as follows:

  • The Civil Rights Act of 1964
  • The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978
  • Radical reform of civil service systems
  • The election of President Barack Obama

Underlying each of these events is an enduring tension regarding how to create and sustain a neutrally competent civil service corps while at the same time helping to ensure that public bureaucracies are responsive to elected and appointed officials as well as the public they serve. This constant and seemingly irresolvable tension brings life to the field of public human resource management and makes it an interesting one to study, explore, and practice.

PUBLIC HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT SERVICE DELIVERY

The most definitive history of the development of the field of public human resource management is Paul Van Riper’sHistory of the United States Civil Service (1958). Additionally, all of the leading texts in the field (e.g., Berman, Bowman, Van Wart, and West, 2010; Klingner, Nalbandian, and Llorens, 2009; Nigro, Nigro, and Kellough, 2006; Riccucci and Naff, 2008) provide an excellent historical analysis of the field. Essentially, public human resource management history in the United States began with early elitist tendencies that favored the landed gentry as holders of public jobs. The election of Andrew Jackson in 1828 ushered in an era of spoils politics in which public jobs were considered a commodity to be bartered for political support. In a direct confrontation of spoils politics, the Pendleton Act of 1883 established the first federal civil service system that slowly expanded its reach over the decades and helped to professionalize the workforce of an increasingly complex bureaucracy. This civil service structure was to stay in place until the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978.

Table 1.1 lists five organizing models for public human resource management. What is interesting to this author is that while there are definite historical time periods that each of these models is most closely associated with, all of these can be found today in varying degrees in federal, state, and local governments in the United States. Therefore, rather than a strict historical analysis, the next several pages discuss various organizing strategies for the delivery of human resource management services and how these, in turn, influence the role of the human resource manager.

The traditional model of public human resource management is most closely associated with strong civil service systems such as the federal civil service system in existence prior to the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 or those employed today by many state and local governments. Under this form of human resource management service delivery, the human resource manager is seen as the gatekeeper of public jobs, an enforcer of “merit,” and a by-product of this role, a hindrance to the effective management of public organizations. This role of merit enforcer has helped build professional public bureaucracies but at the same time has diminished the relevance of public human resource managers to the actual functioning of public organizations.

As a direct result of this preoccupation with rule enforcement, the reform model emerged. The reform model set out to decentralize human resource management away from central personnel authorities to the actual departments they serve. The intended result of this decentralized approach was to make human resource management systems more closely aligned with the organizations they serve. Now managers would be unfettered by uniform sets of rules promulgated and enforced by central personnel authorities. For example, the 1996 Georgia law that abolished the state’s protections for its civil servants also decentralized personnel authority to its various departments (Condrey, 2002; Kellough and Nigro, 2006). Furthermore, demonstration projects allowed by the federal Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 have allowed federal agencies to develop varying performance appraisal systems, alternative position classification systems, and agency-specific pay systems. James Thompson terms this the “disaggregation” of the federal personnel system and points to the difficulty that it poses to the overall coordination of federal personnel management:

 

Table 1.1 A Comparison of Five Models of Public Human Resource Management

Source: Condrey, S. E. (2010). Handbook of Human Resource Management in Government (p. xlviii). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

 

Disaggregation … represents a fundamental threat to an institution whose viability is contingent on its inherently collective nature. The existence of a common set of employment practices contributes in an important way to a collective orientation that is integral to the Civil Service as an institution. (2006, p. 497)

The strategic model seeks to blend positive features of the traditional and reform models. James Perry (1993) points to the positive space that such an arrangement makes for human resource professionals. Under the strategic model, human resource management is closely aligned with the overall management of an agency. The human resource professional’s focus is not preoccupied with enforcing rules and regulations but targeted toward helping management achieve organizational objectives. Theoretically, this role enhances the profile of the human resource professional to that of a managerial consultant who is involved in substantive managerial issues. It may also have the effect of creating a schizophrenic role whereby the human resource manager must sometimes choose between conflicting managerial goals and sound human resource management policy.

The privatization or outsourcing model of public human resource management has emerged in the past several decades. Closely associated with new public management (NPM), privatizing or outsourcing seeks to have specific human resource functions performed by private organizations rather than governmental agencies. For example, Bowman and West (2006) point to the state of Florida and its mixed-tonegative experience with the Converysis Corporation (Bowman, West, and Gertz, 2006).A more radical example of outsourcing is the federal Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Here, legislation establishing the TSA outsourced much of its human resource management functions (Naff and Newman, 2004). As can be easily surmised, a continued and focused effort to outsource human resource functions leads to a diminished role for the human resource manager. On the other hand, it creates the need for human resource professionals to become skilled in contract specification, negotiation, and administration—a far cry from their human resource counterparts of generations past. As of this writing, the privatization and outsourcing fervor of the Clinton and Bush administrations is being tempered by the Obama administration’s stated call to reverse the outsourcing trend and to “insource” federal functions and jobs (Weigelt, 2010). It remains to be seen if this retrenchment will be substantially sustained in the coming decades.

A fifth and emerging model for public human resource management delivery is the hybrid model. Essentially, this model blends positive features of the strategic and the privatization or outsourcing models. This model recognizes that privatization and outsourcing are not only a permanent part of the public human resource management landscape but also create a space for the human resource manager to have an active role in the management of public organizations.

While crystal balls are not readily at hand, it appears that all five of these models will be present to some degree in the practice of public human resource management in the foreseeable future. This fact alone creates a need for enhanced human resource management education, not only for human resource managers but also for public managers in general. The following sections discuss four events that have shaped the practice of public human resource management and the conditions under which it is delivered.

The Civil Rights Act of 1964

The Civil Rights Act of 1964 as applied to government organizations by the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 has had a profound and positive effect on the practice of public human resource management. Prior to 1972, many public human resource selection procedures were accepted on their face as being valid, even though they were sorely lacking in their professional development and application. In the landmark Supreme Court case, Griggs v. Duke Power Company, the court held that the burden of proof as to the validity of selection devices lay with the organizations that developed and administered them:

Since the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, case after case brought before the U.S. courts had led to the mandating of objective personnel practices. Although these practices have been exhaustively advocated by personnelists prior to the 1964 Act, the courts have now provided strong and compelling legal support for their employment. The extension of the Griggs decision to include performance appraisal systems (Connecticut v. Teal, 1982) broadens that mandate. (Daley, 2010, p. 566)

While many public human resource agencies practiced in an aboveboard and professional manner prior to 1972, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act of 1972 caused increased scrutiny of time-honored techniques and practices arising out of the scientific management movement of the early twentieth century and heretofore applied without serious questioning. Employees and applicants were now free to question and legally challenge selection devices—written tests, oral examinations, training and experience evaluations, and performance appraisal techniques. In many cases, these practices were found to be lacking. This increased scrutiny caused introspection in the field and helped serve to make sure that public sector selection devices were valid and related to the positions for which they were designed to assess.

Since selection devices that had “adverse impact” on minorities and women were now open to legal challenge, many public agencies embraced professionally developed assessment centers that were job related and did not block otherwise qualified minorities and women from the public sector workforce. As a result, human resource practices and techniques were professionalized and state and local government workforces became more diverse and representative of the bureaucracies they served.

An excellent example of how application of federal legislation and court ratings has professionalized public human resource management is the Jefferson County, Alabama, personnel board (Sims, 2009). The personnel board is an example of the traditional model of human resource management discussed earlier and serves the City of Birmingham, Jefferson County, and 21 other jurisdictions in Jefferson County as a central personnel agency. Over three decades of law suits, consent decrees, and, finally, a receivership has resulted in the use of valid selection devices for civil service positions. While structural problems remain with how the personnel board is organized, the resulting workforces are far more diverse and representative of the populations they serve as a result of federal court intervention (Condrey and West, 2011; Sims, 2009).

Civil Service Reform Act of 1978

President Carter’s Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 (CSRA of 1978) set the tone for much of the efforts surrounding public human resource management reform in the following decades. As a former governor and Washington outsider, Carter ran against the federal bureaucracy and used the CSRA of 1978 partially as a means of exerting presidential executive control into the structural and substantive aspects of federal personnel management. It was also a signal that being a civil servant was no longer to be considered a high calling, as under the Kennedy administration, but that “bureaucracy” and the civil servants that inhabited them were in need of control, direction, and the exertion of executive authority and leadership.

Five provisions of the CSRA of 1978 will be discussed here:

  • Office of Personnel Management (OPM)
  • Merit Systems Protection Board (MSPB)
  • Merit pay for managers
  • HR demonstration projects
  • Senior executive service (SES)

The 1978 act abolished the Civil Service Commission that had been in place since the passage of the Pendleton Act of 1883. The Civil Service Commission had been a semi-independent commission that administered the federal civil service system and also held hearings and heard appeals from aggrieved employees (Van Riper, 1958). The commission was now replaced by two agencies: the OPM and the MSPB.

The OPM marked the first time in modern U.S. history that the president would have formal administrative control over the gatekeepers of the federal bureaucracy. With an OPM director appointed by the president and directly accountable for federal human resource management, the means for direct executive influence over the federal bureaucracy was now established. This is in contrast to the semi-independent Civil Service Commission it replaced.

While the establishment of OPM allowed a formal mechanism for executive control and influence, U.S. presidents had long sought to influence federal human resource management policy and exert their influence over the federal bureaucratic corps. An extreme example was the Nixon administration’s Malek Manual (Thompson, 2003). Developed by the White House Personnel Office, the manual was a step-by-step guide of how to overcome the Civil Service Commission’s authority—a prime example of the enduring tension between the desire for executive control and the need for a neutrally competent bureaucracy described earlier.

The second major feature of the CSRA of 1978 is the MSPB. The MSPB retained the adjunctive authority of the formal Civil Service Commission. The MSPB also provides periodic independent assessments of the federal workforce and administers federal whistle-blower protections.

Another major feature of the CSRA of 1978 was merit pay for managers. While the initial merit pay plan for managers was not successful at the federal level, it is important since merit pay has continued to be a recurring and controversial theme across all levels of government in the United States. For example, the National Security Personnel System (NSPS) of the second Bush administration was a version of a merit-based compensation system (From proposed to final, 2005; Riccucci and Thompson, 2008, p. 881; ). This system was ended by the Obama administration in 2010 when participants returned to the federal General Schedule (O’Keefe, 2010).

Even though the Obama administration has put an end to NSPS, it still holds out the possibility of expanding merit pay in the federal government. One might ask after such a series of failures, why does the desire for merit pay systems still exist? This writer believes that merit pay enjoys popularity with politicians and the public due to its perceived possible effectiveness in influencing recalcitrant bureaucrats. Why is merit pay so difficult to implement and administer? The problem is complex but seems to distill down to a few elements: low organizational trust levels, perceived ineffectiveness of performance appraisal instruments, small monetary rewards, a large and diverse bureaucracy, and lack of union support. While such obstacles may seem insurmountable, it appears that a continuing search for a merit pay system that “works” will continue into the following decades.

The Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 also allowed for federal human resource management demonstration or pilot projects. This provision allows agencies specific exemptions from the portions of federal civil service law that allow them to develop alternative mechanisms to classify, appraise, and reward employees. Probably the most notable and studied demonstration project was the China Lake project at the naval weapons laboratory (Thompson, 2008, p. 241). While there have been numerous demonstration projects, none of these experiments has proven to be a definitive guide for restructuring federal personnel policy. As James Thompson argues, these projects may have in fact contributed to what he describes as the “disaggregation” of the federal personnel management system. Instead of a uniform human resource management framework, what exists today is far from a coordinated system but rather a patchwork quilt of systems, rules, regulations, and policies (Thompson, 2007). Since such an ad hoc system mitigates against overall executive control of federal personnel management, it would not be surprising to see future presidents retreat toward a more uniform and centralized system for human resource management. This may well have influenced the Obama administration’s decision to abolish the NSPS.

A fifth major provision of the CSRA of 1978 is the SES. The SES was designed to create an elite cadre of federal managers that would provide executive expertise and leadership at the highest levels of the federal bureaucracy. As Hugh Heclo (1977) notes in his now classic A Government of Strangers, published just prior to the passage of the CSRA of 1978, there was a perceived need to build linkages between the career and appointed bureaucratic leadership to provide for policy articulation and continuity. While the jury is mixed on the true result of the SES, Lah and Perry (2008) report that some variation of the SES has expanded to many state governments as well as to numerous countries around the world.

Radical Reform Enters the Picture

While the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978 tinkered legislatively with the federal human resource management delivery system, “radical reformers” were to take a quite different and more direct approach: Instead of reforming human resource systems, they would seek, in some instances, to abolish policies, procedures, as well as entire civil service protection systems, making civil servants “at will” employees rather than being protected from adverse political and managerial actions. Thus, it seems that civil service systems had come full circle—created as a result of the Pendleton Act of 1883 to provide protection for employees and encourage the development of a neutrally competent administration corps—and were now being whittled away and, in some cases, dismantled in the name of executive control and managerial flexibility.

Radical reform found nurture and support in the antigovernment sentiments of the preceding two decades as well as the NPM movement, a global phenomenon. NPM argues that effective government management has been hindered by excessive regulations, particularly in the human resources arena (Kearney and Hays, 1998). Adherents to NPM were encouraged to “let managers manage” and not be constrained by unnecessary and unwieldy rules and regulations. Symbolic of this philosophy, the Clinton/Gore administration “abolished” the federal personnel manual and further decentralized federal human resource management through privatization, outsourcing, and continued “disaggregation” of the federal personnel function.

The second Bush administration did not differ significantly with the Clinton administration’s human resource policies and continued with privatization and outsourcing efforts (Riccucci and Thompson, 2008). The most significant difference between the two administrations concerned federal labor relations. Clinton fostered improved labor/management partnerships, while Bush shunned such partnerships. The result was an acrimonious labor/management atmosphere typified by the diminution of employee rights and protections through avenues such as the NSPS discussed earlier (Tobias, 2010).

While a timid version of radical reform efforts occurred at the federal level under the Clinton and second Bush administrations, it would be one state—Georgia—that would signal the start of real radical reform and begin its diffusion (in whole or in part) to many state governments (Battaglio and Condrey, 2007; Hays and Sowa, 2006; West, 2002). Led by the then governor (and later U.S. Senator) Zell Miller, the State of Georgia abolished civil service protections for new employees effective July 1, 1996. Presently, more than 80 percent of the state’s employees serve “at will,” which means that they effectively serve at the pleasure of the state and may be dismissed without “just cause.” Thus, the balance between executive control and employee rights has been weighted heavily toward executive and managerial control. What has been the result of this policy? Battaglio and Condrey (2009) point to evidence of spoils politics creeping back into state human resource management. The most damaging finding is that Georgia’s at-will employment system has a tendency to undermine the trusting relationships necessary for effective government management and administration:

It appears that HR professionals are somewhat receptive to the concept of EAW [employee-at-will] personnel systems. However, HRM does not take place in a vacuum. When the reality of these systems is experienced, abuses are viewed, and evidence of spoils-like activities appears. The results suggest that HR professionals tend to sour on EAW implementation and to, in turn, exhibit less trust in management and in their respective organizations. This phenomenon may indicate that EAW systems have a fundamental flaw in that they undermine trusting workplace relationships necessary for effective public management. (Battaglio and Condrey, 2009)

Evidence of effectiveness to the contrary, it appears that this brand of radical reform is now an accepted part of the public human resource management landscape and should continue to influence the field over the coming years.

The Obama Administration

The election of Barack Obama may have signaled a reversal or, at least, a halting of the antibureaucratic themes of the past four decades. Obama, unlike his recent predecessors, ran for office on a campaign that embraced public service as a high calling. He has also appointed John Berry as OPM Director. Berry is the highest profile director of that office since its initial director, Alan Campbell. While this chapter is written in the second year of Obama’s term, Obama’s call to public service harkens back to President Kennedy’s administration. Also, Obama appears to have an active policy agenda concerning federal human resource management reform. As John Berry states:

I believe this is an historic opportunity for comprehensive reform of our civil service system. The stars are aligned in a way that occurs only once in a generation. We have a President who deeply values service and wants to restore the dignity and respect for our civil service to what it was during Kennedy’s stirring call. We have a Congress that is willing to help and a public that increasingly recognizes that our current approaches to hiring, rewarding, appraising and training our employees are inadequate. (Berry, 2009a)

There are six areas that the Obama administration has addressed, or likely will address, concerning federal human resource management:

  • Recruitment
  • Pay system reform
  • Performance management
  • Training and development
  • Improved labor/management relations
  • In-sourcing

Recruitment

The OPM, and in particular its director, has made the improvement of federal recruitment a top priority. With 1.9 million employees and the need to fill 300,000 positions on an annual basis, the federal government is hiring at a rapid pace, and the need for quality applicants is critical. At this writing, OPM is turning from lengthy essay examinations that probe knowledge, skills, and abilities related to a particular job to a resumebased system. Other priorities are sharing information about applicants from agency to agency as well as limiting the effects of the “rule of three,” a rule that requires hiring from the top three ranked applicants for a position. As Berry notes:

The very procedures that were supposed to ensure job applicants are evaluated based on merit are discouraging applicants from completing the arduous quest of actually getting a civil service job.” (Berry, 2009b)

Effective recruitment, and eliminating barriers to such, appears to have been the top priority of OPM in the nascence of the Obama administration.

Pay System Reform

While Obama has approved the abolition of the NSPS and its reintegration into the federal General Schedule, overall pay system reform is still on its policy agenda. The federal pay system has remained virtually structurally unchanged since its creation in the 1940s. Such reform would probably include some form of pay for performance and also feature career ladders and career bands (a rank-in-person system) over the step and grade structure (a rank-in-position system) of the General Schedule. While such ideas percolate, there is natural resistance from employee unions to these reforms. Additionally, other major policy distractions such as a focus on the recovery from the deep recession of 2009–2010, major foreign policy challenges, and the impending ecological disaster caused by the Gulf of Mexico oil spill may lessen the sweeping nature of any possible pay system reform or other human resource management reform proposals of a controversial nature.

Performance Management

The disaggregation of the federal personnel system is perhaps best evident in the system utilized to assess employee performance. Different agencies utilize different performance appraisal systems, and these systems utilize a differing number of performance appraisal categories. Director Berry (2009a) has proposed more closely tying performance appraisal outcomes with overall career development, perhaps linking performance appraisal to movement through the career bands discussed earlier. A uniform federal performance management system would have three levels:

  • In good standing
  • Outstanding
  • Not-in-good standing

A more uniform performance management system could theoretically increase the possibility for overall coordination efforts related to the federal bureaucracy.

Training and Development

Closely linked to career bands and an enhanced and reaggregated performance management system is the need for an increased focus on training and development: “We need to get the best people into the Federal government, and once they’re here, we need to get them in the right places” (Berry, 2009a). In combination, these three elements represent a cultural shift in how the federal government attracts, rewards, appraises, and develops its workforce. Such a shift would help build a human resource management system suited to the complex tasks federal civil servants face on a daily basis. If implemented successfully, these structural changes to the federal government’s human resources system would most likely diffuse to state and local governments as well.

Improving Labor Management Relations

The “big chill” on labor relations during the second Bush administration is over. The Obama administration is working closely to rebuild positive relations with federal employee labor unions. Robert Tobias (2010) argues that to be effective, human resource managers need to embrace the possibility of positive and productive relations with labor unions. As Obama set out to restructure the labor/management partnership councils of the Clinton Administration, John Gage, President of the American Federation of Government Employees, stated:

If there’s a management team that’s HR and labor relations, we’re not going to play. (Rosenberg, 2010)

What Gage means is that federal labor unions want a seat at the table when major policy decisions are made—if they are solely dealing with human resources representatives, they are not interested. This attitude is an artifact of decades of union experience in dealing with human resource managers operating under their traditional role as gatekeepers of merit and the uniform enforcers of rules and regulations. If unions view HR in this narrow role, they are unlikely to seek them out unless matters involve interpretation of contracts, regulations, and the like. To this writer, the above statement from federal union leaders should not be dismissed but rather embraced. As a field, public human resource management has as much to learn from its detractors as it does from its supporters.

Where Are We Headed?

Where is the field of public human resource management headed? While the path is not directly clear, this writer believes that public human resource management is on the way toward revitalization and increased importance in the management of public organizations. Human resource management expertise is not only required for those staffing agency human resources offices but is also an essential part of the job of every public manager. As sound human resource management practices are diffused throughout public organizations, the challenge is for central human resources departments to be viewed as credible and viable sources of human resource management expertise.

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1 The author is grateful to Linda Seagraves and Alex Daman of the Carl Vinson Institute of Government at the University of Georgia for their assistance in preparing this chapter.