Human Resource Management in American Counties, 2002

By Selden, Sally Coleman | Public Personnel Management, Spring 2005 | Go to article overview

Human Resource Management in American Counties, 2002


Selden, Sally Coleman, Public Personnel Management


Human resource management (HRM) in public organizations is changing as there are numerous policy, procedural and structural reforms underway. Human resource management studies have focused primarily at the state and federal levels, with relatively fewer comprehensive views of county governments. This article looks at human resource management roles, structures and practices from the perspective of county government using data from the Government Performance Project. The article describes approaches to reforms, the role and structures of the central HRM department, and the range of HRM practices related to selection, training, classification and compensation. The study finds that while different innovations and reforms have been adopted, county governments continue to function somewhat traditionally, leaving many opportunities for additional reforms to improve county governance.

The field public human resource management (HRM) is undergoing significant reforms because of legislative, policy, and technological changes. (1) These changes are affecting governments of all levels--federal, state, and local. While considerable attention has focused on activities at the federal and state levels, relatively little research has focused on human resource management reforms and trends in counties. (2) County governments are particularly important because of the increased devolution of responsibilities from federal and state authorities and their changing role in the intergovernmental systems. (3) Berman and Salant suggest that "of all the units of government in the United States, few have experienced as much change as county governments." (4) At the same time that counties are experiencing massive changes in the demands and services they provide, they must also grapple with the implications of these changes on their management capacity. (5)

The purpose of this article is to systematically examine human resource management in county governments using data from the Government Performance Project (GPP). First, the article identifies and classifies recent reforms. Second, the article discusses the structure and role of the central HRM department in counties. Finally, it discusses trends and innovations in the following areas: strategic human resource management, selection process, training and development, and classification and compensation.

Study Design and Data

In March 2001, the GPP administered a survey that included a section about human resources management practices to 40 counties that were selected based on revenue and region (see Table 1).

Thirty-six counties, or 90 percent, submitted a complete survey response and are included in the analysis. (7) An initial survey instrument was pre-tested in four states, four local governments, and four federal agencies in 1997. Based on this pilot study, the instrument was revised and streamlined. After completing a survey of 50 states in 1998 and 2000 and a survey of the 35 largest cities by revenue, the survey was again revised. The HRM survey instrument contained 82 multi-part closed- and open-ended questions designed to yield information about a given county's capacity with respect to its human resource management system. In addition to the survey, numerous supporting documents were collected and reviewed.

Human Resource Management Reform

An examination of counties provides both reform experiences and opportunities for comparison to other levels of government and learning. (8) Many of the HRM reforms in public organizations have been structural, while other have been process or policy-oriented. (9) The degree of reform varies from incremental to substantial, system-wide changes. (10) This study found that 25 percent of the counties experienced significant reform(s) of its human resource management system, while 33 percent did not report implementing any HRM-related reforms. The nature of the reforms in county governments are classified as follows:

* Structural: changes in the organization of county human resource management functions;

* Policy: changes in human resource management policies or courses of action, such as hiring rules (Rule of 3) and personnel authority;

* Process: changes in human resource management processes or activities to improve the operational efficiency of HRM. …

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