Innovations in Local Government Human Resource Systems: Observations from Several Best Practice Locations

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

The search for optimal means of accomplishing various public management tasks has long pervaded the thought and practice of public administration. This study represents an up-close look at several local jurisdictions-cities and counties-tha are recognized leaders in reforming their human resources systems. The specific reforms discussed touch upon almost all elements of any government's personnel system including recruitment, selection, employee motivation (retention), training, and development. Some of the most significant conclusions of the research resonate from the prominence of various "reinvention" themes in the jurisdictions' reform agendas. Relatedly, the study offers proof that there are many examples of human resource management innovations that might be readily transported into other settings. Another significant conclusion of the site visits is that the process by which reform is introduced may well be as important as the substance of the innovations themselves.

INTRODUCTION

One of the most enduring themes of management is the relentless search for a better way of doing things. In fact, schools of organizational theory are usually based on the premise that there is a "best" way of accomplishing generic management tasks if only it (they) could be identified and understood. This was obviously the major tenet of the Classical School but reappeared in the Neo-Classical, Functional, and Structural movements. More recently, even the contingency theorists have developed prescriptions that, although more sophisticated than those of their predecessors, essentially boil down to mechanical responses to specific sets of endogenous and exogenous variables. For example, there is widespread agreement that a rapidly changing environment filled with high risk and an acute need for timely information requires that the organization be decentralized through either a matrix, product, or related form of departmentalization.

Consistent with this eagerness to find and apply "one size fits all" solutions to common administrative dilemmas, the current crop of government reformers seems to be especially prone to scout the country for good ideas that can be quickly adopted by other public jurisdictions. Indeed, the search for best practices is so pervasive that it has essentially displaced much of the evaluation research that characterized public administration in the late Twentieth Century.

Perhaps the most visible evidence of this preoccupation is contained in the voluminous reports of the National Performance Review (NPR) and related projects. Lists and descriptions of best practices have been generated on such diverse topics as government downsizing, worker incentive systems, relocation services, and internal telephone systems (e.g., Federal Consortium Benchmark Study, 1995; Holzer and Callahan, 1998; United States General Accounting Office, 1996, 1998). A similar note is sounded in the famous (infamous?) rankings of administrative performance among states and localities by such outlets as Governing Magazine (Barrett and Greene, 1999, 2000). Implicit within any ranking system, of course, is the belief that there is a standard and/or set of best practices by which other jurisdictions can be measured.

Thanks to the prominent position that human resources management (HRM) occupies in the reinvention agenda, reforms targeted at public personnel systems have emerged as a major source of professional interest. Spurred no doubt by such catalysts as the Volcker (1989) and Winter Commissions (1993) report, merit systems have attracted a disproportionate amount of attention because they are viewed as both the problem and the potential solution to the ills of contemporary bureaucracy. Due to their well-documented tendencies toward inflexibility and unresponsiveness to line managers, HRM is one of the major targets of today's reformers. And, as is so often the true throughout the managerial world, the preferred directions of reform are widely embraced by the professional community. …