The "State of the Discipline" in Public Personnel Administration
Hays, Steven W, Public Administration Quarterly
As the new millennium looms on the horizon, virtually unprecedented changes confront every component of public management. Decades of dissatisfaction with government generally and bureaucracy in especially have culminated in an apparent "paradigm shift" that is gradually redefining both the substance and the process of public administration (PA). Although every management function is targeted for some form of "reengineering" or "reinvention," Public Personnel Administration (PPA) status in the dawning era of change may be especially precarious.
Ever since the 1920s, Public Personnel Administration (PPA) has been somewhat self-conscious about its role and image within public organizations. This is easily understandable given the field's checkered past. Even the most casual observer of the discipline is familiar with Sayre's (1948) famous quote regarding the "triumph of technique over purpose." Personnel's preoccupation with technology, coupled with its traditional focus on insulating the civil service system from political influences, resulted in a disciplinary bias toward control. By enforcing torrents of picky rules and regulations, personnelists drove a wedge between the staffing function and line managers. Personnel offices came to be viewed as impediments to be overcome rather than allies in the pursuit of effective management.
According to some commentators, this depiction of personnel's role in public management is outdated and inaccurate. Personnel offices have been transformed over the past few decades, they argue, in response to a stunning variety of externally imposed demands. Demographic shifts, technological advances, economic pressures, and spiraling legal complexities have forced PA assume a more progressive and proactive organizational role (Newland, 1984). Detractors, in contrast, assert that the traditional role and functions of personnelists have not undergone the metamorphosis that the discipline's defenders claim. Instead, they argue that most personnel functions continue to be handled in an introverted and defensive manner that often impedes organizational performance. Extremists even suggest that the time has come to abolish personnel offices after outsourcing any functions that cannot be handled directly by line managers (Stewart, 1996).
Ordinarily this debate might be dismissed as simply another academic "tempest in a teapot." No one would seriously consider eliminating an entire staff function or dispersing its duties to the far corners of the organization. Or would they? Although it would take draconian failures to lead to the disappearance of PPA as a formal organizational fixture, even the optimists within the professional community should recognize the threats (and potential opportunities) confronting the discipline. "People issues" dominate much of the reform agenda thereby suggesting that personnelists will be (for better or worse) in the spotlight for the foreseeable future.
Most of the pressing management issues of the day--including deregulation, privatization, reinvention, and the ballooning fixation with managerialism--have direct and profound impacts on the staffing function. To rise to this challenge, the profession will clearly need to alter its practices, to refine its techniques, and essentially to redefine itself within the management structure. If PA succeeds, personnelists may emerge as "the new corporate heroes" (Meyer, 1976). If they fail, the negative consequences may be just as dramatic.
The purpose of this brief article is to itemize the specific challenges that PPA faces and provide an overview of the discipline's capacity to respond. The central question that is addressed focuses on personnel's need to maintain its relevance within the contemporary administrative context. What must personnelists do to avoid obsolescence? How can they become partners with other managers in the quest for improved performance? Finally, what role do academics need to play in assisting their practitioner brethren?
CHALLENGES AND RESPONSES
Like the other functions of public management, PPA's world has been rocked repeatedly in recent years. Fiscal crises, a brooding and hypercritical public, and stunningly rapid changes in the personnel systems's environment, highlighted by technological advances and momentous shifts in the labor force, have shaken the discipline's faith in many traditional practices. Among the numerous, interrelated forces that are reshaping the human resources landscape, volatile economic and political conditions clearly exert the most powerful influence. Their impact, in turn, is amplified by a unstable set of professional values.
The Reinventing Government (RIGO) Phenomenon
By now one would need to be either "clueless" or laughably inattentive to miss the significance of RIGO themes on the entire public management enterprise. If anything, the topic suffers from such severe over-exposure that the proponents may be running the risk of boring their audience to death. This fact notwithstanding, RIGO poses many real and immediate challenges to civil service systems generally and to personnel professionals specifically. Because the topic has been so exhaustively covered elsewhere (eg., Caiden, 1994; Moe, 1994), only a sketchy overview is provided here.
The underlying themes of RIGO straddle many reform agendas, including decentralization of administrative and political authority, debureaucratization, privatization of government services (or euphemistically, the use of "alternative delivery strategies"), downsizing, and managerialism (the application of private sector values and practices in public management). Unified by its anti-government philosophy, RIGO's ultimate goal is to reduce society's reliance upon public services; for those government functions that cannot be off-loaded to the private sector, RIGO demands greater economy and efficiency.
Insofar as PPA is concerned, this expansive reform agenda point in a direction toward which the discipline has gradually drifted since the 1970s. Given its unfortunate history of bureaucratic excess, personnelists have long recognized the need to decentralize operations, to reduce unnecessary procedural requirements, and to update their techniques. Positive personnel management, along with entreaties to staff strategically, are accepted components of the PPA catechism (Tompkins, 1995). As such, those public personnel systems that are regarded as "progressive" have truly taken the RIGO lessons to heart.
Progress has clearly been made, as evidenced by the nearuniversal effort to shift centralized staffing duties to operating units (Thompson, 1993). In addition to delegating the responsibilities for recruitment and selection to line managers, many public personnel systems are trying to enhance their flexibility by experimenting with innovative compensation, classification, and evaluation strategies. Despite an overwhelmingly negative endorsement from the research literature, merit pay enjoys unprecedented and growing popularity.
Meanwhile broadhandling has become the rage within the classification and career management field. By collapsing pay grades and reducing the corresponding number of job classifications, broadhandling grants supervisors much greater discretion in the assignment and reward of civil servants. Efforts to modernize the performance evaluation process have led in similar directions. Borrowing lessons from TQM and related theories, individual performance reviews are occasionally being supplanted with indicators of group performance or are being eliminated altogether. Wisconsin's merit system, for instance, recently abolished its performance appraisal system and diverted the money to the employee training program (Wisconsin Department of Employment Relations, 1996).
Although PPA's efforts to make itself flexible and responsive top the needs of line managers have a high degree of visceral (and political) appeal, the rush toward reinvention is not entirely a "ride in the park." RIGO is, in many ways, an iron fist in a velvet glove. While helping to make PPA more relevant and effective, is has a darker side that receives only superficial attention in the professional literature.
Depriviliging of Civil Servants. In the midst of rosy accounts of how merit systems are being invigorated through reinvention, it is easy to overlook the fact that RIGO is primarily and assault on bureaucratic power. Despite numerous references to worker empowerment, the movement exudes an anti-employee bias. This tendency is apparent in almost all industrialized nations where the so-called New Public Management Movement incorporates the themes typified in RIGO and in National Performance Review (NPR). In contrast to most of their American counterparts, foreign scholars have been quick to recognize the likely consequences of reinvention's ascendancy. Simply stated, the reforms are viewed as a concerted effort to deprivilege the professional civil service (Hood, 1991).
This sinister side of RIGO is often obfuscated by a flurry of righteous justifications but the effects are nonetheless troublesome. Privatization, for example, usually means that the same work will be performed more cheaply (often by the very same workers who were once government employees) due to the wage and fringe benefit differentials between the two employment sectors. RIGO's emphasis on managerialism, also, contains both subtle and non-so-subtle attacks on civil servants. Most reform initiatives contain provisions reducing employee protections in terminal proceedings, granting supervisors much greater discretion over assignments and transfers, holding employees' feet to the fire through explicit performance standards and opening up more and more of the bureaucracy to non-career (ie., political) appointees.
Any one of these measures may look perfectly appropriate in isolation, yet the collective effect is to expose the civil servant to abuse. Every step toward decentralization logically increases such age-old risks of politicization, discrimination, and/or incompetency. In launching Britain's version of RIGO, for example, Margaret Thatcher admitted that her real goal was to encourage the departure of a "generation of top civil servants" through a process of demoralization and deprivileging (Christoph, 1992). To the extent that line managers internalize the values of a merit system, the risks may not be very great. However, to the extent that their new-found freedoms over the public personnel system permit managers to engage their biases, to trade political favors or to reward their friends, then the professional public service suffers grievous harm.
The Capacity Question. If we assume for a moment that RIGOinspired reforms are completely pristine, will good intentions be enough to make the new personnel system work effectively? Are decentralization, flexibility, and the other advantages of RIGO sufficient to ensure that line managers can handle their new staffing responsibilities?
Because the professional literature is almost silent on this topic, any attempt to answer these questions must rely on anecdotal evidence and speculation. On this basis, anyway, the outlook is somewhat depressing. Even though the vast bulk of public management reforms directly affect human resources issues (recruitment, selection, evaluation, motivation, and the like), public personnel offices have been especially hard-hit by organizational downsizing. Compounding this problem is the general sense that the line managers whose responsibility it is to pick up the duties of the decentralized personnel are not offered the necessary training (Daley, 1996). Obviously, empowering line managers to undertake staffing duties without any systematic training or other preparation is an invitation to trouble. But, given the government's atrocious record in training and employee development (Carnevale, 1995), this situation may well be a common scenario in public agencies throughout the country.
Model Employer No More? Another implicit byproduct of RIGO is the fact that government is quickly losing (or has already lost) its historic position as a model employer (Nigro and Nigro, 1994:313). Within an environment characterized by diminishing resources and unprecedented pressure to increase efficiency, personnel systems that emphasize security and a copious array of fringe benefits appear somewhat anachronistic. Compared to past generations, today's civil servants often work in an austere setting characterized by slow career progress, infrequent raises, and the threat (however slight) of layoffs. When the possibility of increased politicization, much closer scrutiny, and a greatly elevated level of public criticism are factored into the equation, the civil service does not look like a terribly appealing career choice.
Whether or not one believes that government ought to be a model employer (and there are many who contend that civil servants should gravitate to public service because it is a "calling" not a career), slippage in the extrinsic rewards available to civil servants can produce a bitter harvest. Since the 1980s, a succession of reform groups, study commissions, and researchers has warned that government is losing its ability to attract and retain talented workers. The declining pay and prestige of public employment are cited as major contributors to the recruitment "crisis" (Rosen, 1986; Volcker Commission, 1989). Survey results generally confirm this observation as evidenced by reports that "government is not perceived as an 'employer of choice' among college graduates" (Merit Systems Protection Board, 1989:2) and that "fewer than 15 of recently interviewed senior executives would recommend public employment to their children" (Carnevale and Housel, 1989:249). Because the performance of any organization ultimately depends upon the quality of its employees, these trends should disturb both the friends and enemies of the public services.
Diversity and Other Workplace Demands
Most of the challenges emanating from the RIGO movement, workforce diversity issues expose PPA to the greatest variety of stresses and strains. The changing character of the labor force commands at least as much scholarly attention as reinvention (Wooldridge and Wester, 1991) and demands an equally impressive array of responses from the PPA profession (Thayer, 1980).
The conventional wisdom of workforce diversity is set forth in a number of celebrated reports, especially Workforce 2000 (Hudson Institute, 1987) and Civil Service 2000 (Johnston, 1988). Although later analyses have quibbled with some of the specific forecasts contained in these documents (U.S. General Accounting Office, 1992), no one denies that sweeping changes are occurring in the nation's labor market. By all accounts, both the workforce and the workplace of the future are destined for fundamental transformations.
With the expansion of the service economy, jobs are becoming increasingly professional and technical in nature. Knowledge workers will certainly have the upper hand in this environment, yet many of the employees entering then labor force will probably lack the requisite skills to compete. Not only will many new entrants to the labor force be relatively unprepared technically and educationally but a large portion will also lack necessary language and behavioral skills. Tomorrow's workforce is expected to be composed of a larger percentage of women and minorities, many of whom will be immigrants (depending, of course, upon the ultimate outcome of ongoing political debates) and/or individuals with little experience working in complex organizations. The number of "majority workers" (white, native-born males) is expected to decrease significantly while the workforce expands bimodally (there will be large increases in the number of older and younger employees).
Recruitment and Retention Dilemmas
Unusual intuitive powers are not needed to anticipate the consequences of these employment trends. Their most immediate effect is to exacerbate government's attraction and retention problem. Years of "bashing the bureaucrat," stingy legislatures, and employee cutbacks have already taken a toll on public service recruitment efforts but the problem is compounded by a shrinking pool of qualified workers. Perversely, the public sector's need for highly skilled workers will continually increase just as the supply of such workers is expected to diminish (Thompson, 1993). In addition to suggesting that government's recruitment efforts be upgraded, this dilemma accents the urgency for training and employee development activities that will elevate the skill levels of new and incumbent employees.
Notably, impressive progress has been made in the areas of recruitment and selection but, sadly, the training and development area lags far behind. Government's historically centralized and cumbersome entry procedures are quickly being transplanted by strategies borrowed from the private sector. Multiple points-of-entry (i.e., delegating testing and selection authority to operating units), walk-in civil service testing, aggressive recruitment on college campuses, direct-mail campaigns, on-the-spot hiring (allowing recruiters to offer jobs to applicants without obtaining hierarchical approval), and computerized job postings are just a few of the innovations that have recently made an appearance (Cole, 1989:90; Ross, 1990). These measures, in turn, are often supplemented with improved testing formats. With the decline of single point-of-entry examinations (many of which are very difficult to validate), public agencies increasingly use performance tests, assessment centers, computerized adaptive testing, and other selection methods that offer a greater degree of reliability.
The Incentive Structure
Once recruited, however, the task of melding workers into the organizational framework has just begun. To motivate and retain civil servants, PPA is challenged to make the work experience more meaningful and accommodating.
Because the outlook for significant extrinsic rewards (large raises and frequent promotions) is grim, other means and motives must be found. Considerable experimentation has already occurred in this regard. Tinkering with various incentive systems, for instance, has always become an habitual activity among public personnelists. Suggestion awards, employee sabbaticals, group-oriented bonus systems, and various types of safety and attendance incentives have become commonplace.
Relatively, continuing efforts to make merit pay ("pay for performance") work are undoubtedly attributable to the paucity of alternative motivational schemes. And, because the assessment of worker's performance is central to most incentive systems (and also because poorly operationalized assessments are one of the most pervasive workplace irritant), revisions in evaluation methods occur at breakneck speed. Almost every new issue of the discipline's publications (notably, Public Personnel Management and Review of Public Personnel Administration) contains at least one article on the most recent evaluation innovation or on the establishment, measurement or application of performance standards.
To the extent possible within current resource limitations, PPA has also tried to make the work environment more hospitable. Enhancements to the "quality of worklife" have appeared through such diverse measures as wellness programs which encourage employee health through organized activities (and, notably, which can potentially lower absenteeism and insurance costs); employee assistance programs (EAPs) which provide confidential counseling services to those experiencing psychological, emotional or substanceabuse problems; and the recognition of domestic partners ("cohabitation").
In order to meet the varying needs of working parents and those with other types of off-job responsibilities, scheduling flexibility has become nearly universal. A few public employees are allowed to work at home, communicating with the office by computer modem. Far more typical are various forms of flextime. Workers with childcare obligations may elect, for instance, to work a 9:00A.M. to 6:00:P.M. schedule or even to arrive at 6:00A.M. so that they can be at home when their children return from school. Perhaps the next most popular development is the flexible benefit ("cafeteria") plans that enable employees to tailor their own benefit packages according to personal tastes and needs. Workers with families, for example, may select daycare or life insurance benefits while those who are single opt for additional tax shelters.
Employee Utilization and Career Management As the nature of work changes, along with the character of the workforce, PPA is presented with a new set of demands. Whereas rigid job descriptions and narrow classifications may once have been effective staffing tools, their relevance to the contemporary is, at best, debatable. Jobs involving rapid technological change quickly outgrow facile definitions and unreasonably constrain the efforts of knowledge workers. Moreover, restrictive classifications are widely perceived as deleterious to job satisfaction and motivation
In response to these dilemmas, PPA is actively engineering a shift from rank-in-job to rank-in-person (employee-based or workbased) career systems. Flexibility is engendered by reducing the reliance on narrow job descriptions and collapsing job classifications into broad groups. As was noted, this move toward broadbanding--as well as the creation of senior executive "pools"--provides supervisors with much wider discretion in the assignment of their subordinates' duties. The workers, meanwhile, benefit from greater freedom of movement within the organization; they are able to undertake new tasks and assignments to the extent that their talents and motivations permit. These measures encompass elements of both job enlargement (horizontal job loading such as in the lateral rotation of assignments) and job enrichment (vertical job loading) under which workers are given greater hierarchical latitude, both of which have long been advocated as means to improve worker motivation and performance.
Although the reliance on job classifications is certainly subsiding, PPA has not yet taken the next step toward adapting career systems to contemporary realities, Specifically, fundamental changes in the way their many jobs have been redefined in recent times are not being recognized within public sector career systems. Mary Guy (1996), for example, points to the fact that the traditional role of "secretary" has all but disappeared from most organizations. The individuals who occupy these positions now perform a wide array of self-directed functions and are expected to possess unprecedented levels of technical (primarily computer-based) skills). But, either due to inertia or gender-based biases, their new responsibilities are rarely reflected in existing compensation and classification plans. This general tendency to overlook important structural alterations in the workplace may also be partly to blame for the slow progress that females have made in acquiring the more prestigious and powerful public positions.
One of the hallmarks of any profession is a stable value structure that can serve as an intellectual anchor during stressful times. If the profession is challenged in some way, adherence to a consistent set of values guides professional conduct and provides a safe passage through the storm.
PPA, unfortunately, has never been blessed with a coherent value system. Because it is so heavily enmeshed in the political world and because public jobs will always be perceived as public resources to which everyone has a potential claim, the discipline's values are a fluid jumble of paradoxes. As noted by Brudney (1996), for every value considered worthwhile, another can be identified to oppose it and is equally desirable. Control clashes with discretion, equity with efficiency, and access with favoritism. Brudney opines that this value paradox is what gives PPA its "fascinating flavor."
While value instability certainly spices up academic study of the staffing function, it also makes the jobs of personnel practitioners all the more difficult. The value conflict that is most influential in the current environment is the one that has shaped PPA since the founding of the republic and which undergirds all the other value paradoxes: the unresolved tension between patronage and merit (or, worded differently, accountability versus professionalism).
For much of the past century, the desire for "merit" edged out pressures for responsiveness and accountability (at least insofar as public opinion and statutory requirements were concerned). The resulting personnel system, however, gradually became so cumbersome and unresponsive that a stunning reaction was triggered. Much of the RIGO reform agenda (as well as the Civil Service Reform Act of 1978, National Performance Review, and untold numbers of state and local initiatives) is nothing more than a perceived "solution" to the excesses of the merit system.
The challenge that this situation presents to personnel professionals should be painfully evident. Society seems to be pushing in the direction of increased employee responsibilities and accountability, meaning that a subtle (and sometimes brutal) campaign is being waged against such values as professionalism, neutral competence, and expertise. PPA's dilemma is to balance these competing demands, to achieve an equilibrium that everyone can live with. As was implied during the earlier discussion of RIGO, this may require personnelists to be complicitous in the dismantling of their colleagues' career protections or to condone the politicization of career appointments.
Within this environment, perhaps the greatest challenge facing PPA is the need to "keep the faith." That is, personnel management is, in many ways, the central repository of merit system values. Expertise, competence, and professionalism may be temporarily out of favor when compared to society's desire for responsive and efficient public management but their relevance and utility to modern government have not diminished. To the extent that personnel professionals can reconcile these competing value schemes, they will have met what is clearly the most daunting challenge of the era.
THE TASKS AHEAD
When compared to the myopic practices of just two or three decades ago, PPA has probably matured as quickly as any subdiscipline within public management. The field has loosened its embrace of control functions and elevated service to line managers as a major professional concern. Not only have the fundamental goals of the discipline been altered but also the organizational modus operandi. Decentralization, flexibility, and accommodation are supplanting centralization, rigidity, and dogmatism. And, to complement these impressive accomplishments, PPA has demonstrated an encouraging willingness to refine its techniques. Innovation is now a pervasive phenomenon in a discipline once best known for its conservatism and insularity. The professional literature is replete with case studies chronicling how public agencies have experimented with this or that new strategy for attracting, screening, evaluating, motivating or utilizing today's civil servants. Especially notable have been the advances made in scheduling, classification and career management (broadbanding, etc.), recruitment, and quality-of-worklife enhancements.
At the risk of minimizing the stunning progress that has been attained, however, even the most Pollyannish observer would likely conclude that the discipline's journey back to "relevance" is just beginning. Like any management function in a turbulent environment, heroic adjustments are required just to stay even with the course of change. But due to PPA's traditional disciplinary weaknesses, the field has a good bit of ground to make up. Although all facets of the field's theory and practice require further refinements, the need for improvement seems especially pronounced in the following areas.
Incentives, Motivation, and Merit
Considering the indignities that it has been compelled to endure for over twenty years, the professional civil service has proven to be remarkably resilient. Intermittent "brain drains" and recruitment difficulties have occurred yet the overall health of the public personnel system is probably better than anyone should reasonably expect it to be.
The real worry at this point is: how much longer can this situation continue? As pressures continue to build on public employees to "do more with less," what can PPA do to keep civil servants motivated? As has been mentioned, the availability of generous extrinsic rewards is diminishing, thereby necessitating greater reliance on upon measures that appeal to workers' intrinsic needs (e.g., increased autonomy, various forms of recognition). Meanwhile, the intrinsic satisfactions of public employment are under assault from such forces as negative public opinion, crushing workloads that lead to burnout (West and West, 1989), and (potentially) the demoralization effects of RIFs, politicization, and/or other byproducts of the RIGO phenomenon. And, to complicate matters, civil servants are now asked to become risk-takers under the creeping entrepreneurialism that dominates the policy agenda. "Worker empowerment" may provide opportunities for professional self-fulfillment and excitement but it also can be used to fix blame. At a time when their career protections are eroding, these are especially curious (if not cruel) expectations.
The inherent dilemmas are obvious. How can PPA help to keep civil servants focused and motivated in an austere and demanding organizational setting? What sorts of incentives will be effective in persuading timid bureaucrats to climb out on the proverbial limb?
A few partial answers are evident yet none offers a magic bullet. In addition to ensuring that due process protections are honored (certainly a minimalist perspective), efforts to devise meaningful performance measurement systems ought to be expanded. Likewise, the field's chronic inattention to training and employee development is especially problematic when public agencies are putatively empowering workers with expanded responsibilities. The acquisition of task-relevant knowledge would not necessarily allay workers' suspicions about management's motives but will probably improve confidence and performance (assuming, of course, that personnel offices have the requisite capability to design and deliver an effective training program, which is not always the case).
Whether or not such measures will have much of an ameliorating effects is open to debate. The practical difficulties of structuring incentive systems in government are illustrated by the tortured history of pay-for-performance. Despite copious evidence that this motivational tool works only in a few (narrowly-defined) settings, its use continues to expand exponentially (Kellough, 1996). Unless or until the public mood--as well as the resource pool--improves, the morale and motivation of civil servants are likely to remain as sore points in all but the most unusual merit systems.
In the meantime, however, motivating civil servants to perform effectively may be the most important obligation of the PPA discipline. The ultimate legitimacy of merit systems depends in part upon the performance of career civil servants during these stressful times. To the extent that public service excellence can be maintained in the face of multiple challenges, then further diminution of the merit principle might be averted.
Improving Technical Capacities
Government's struggle to develop effective incentive systems is reminiscent of a broader problem with the field's level of technical sophistication. Although significant improvement has occurred across almost all of PPA's many techniques, much additional work needs to be done. Inertia rather than demonstrated effectiveness often seems to control the professional choices of public personnelists. This tendency is especially apparent in employee selection (where test validity persists as a major challenge) but also extends to such areas as incentive systems (where fixation with merit pay tends to discourage experimentation with other formats), and performance evaluation (where rating scales are still popular in some jurisdictions).
Other than the continuing need for self-critical analysis of all of the field's technical applications, the most immediate target of opportunity may lie in borrowing certain tactics from the private sector. Due to the advantages they enjoy in both resources and flexibility, corporate personnel offices have surpassed their government counterparts in some areas. The use of sophisticated orientation programs, for example, have proven to be extraordinarily useful in reducing attrition and enhancing worker morale. Yet, despite its utility, worker orientation remains one of PPA's most underutilized techniques. Increasing innovations have also occurred in the private personnelists' efforts to upgrade selection and incentive systems. To screen prospective employees, corporations have discovered that such techniques as biodata, task inventories, and trainability tests are reliable predictors of job performance.
Likewise, many private sector incentive systems include compensation schemes that reward workers for learning additional skills and assuming greater responsibility. Skill-based pay allocates salaries on the basis of a worker's learning progression and/or ability to perform duties in more than one functional area. For the most part, public agencies have not yet imported such techniques even though they appear to be directly applicable to the government setting.
Another disturbing characteristic of contemporary PPA is what sometimes appears to be the bimodal distribution of the profession's reach in public jurisdictions. No matter how advanced the discipline's techniques become, they won't have much of an effect in agencies where they are not applied.
As has been pointed out many times in the past (Shafritz, 1975), large numbers of government jurisdictions blithely go about their business without so much as a gracious nod in the direction of modern personnel management. States and populous cities typically adhere fairly closely to state-of-the-art personnel practices but the situation is often quite different in smaller jurisdictions. In towns and rural counties, "personnel management" sometimes consists of little more than a disorganized file drawer filled with employee records. The "personnel analyst" in such settings is usually a city clerk or assistant city manager who performs the duties on a part-time basis. As a general rule, jurisdictions don't hire full-time personnel managers (or create personnel offices) until they employ between 150-200 workers. Because thousands of cities and counties fall well below this critical mass, much of what passes for personnel management in the United States bears little resemblance to what one reads in textbooks.
Two additional dimensions of this problem deserves a brief mention. First, the lack of PPA penetration is not necessarily confined to small and/or rural jurisdictions. Among the factors leading up to the adoption of the Intergovernmental Personnel Act of 1970 was the poor track record of PPA modernization in state and metropolitan governments. Even after years of funding personnel system improvements, federal agencies in the 1980s concluded that man=y large merit systems continued to operate in an archaic manner (General Accounting Office, 1982). While we can hope that this situation has improved over the past decade, one does not need to be a critic to imagine that pockets of incompetence still exist.
A related dilemma stems from the fact that there are often wide discrepancies between the legal and practical sides of PPA. That is, the techniques and principles included in the merit system laws are not always applied consistently and conscientiously. Depending upon a variety of circumstances (e.g., political pressure, lack of personnel professionalism, or a simple desire to expedite the staffing process), personnel procedures are commonly ignored or circumvented. The refrain, "It's not what you know, but who you know!" probably applies in must PPA settings, large and small, formal and informal.
The Strategic Perspective
One strategy that has long been advocated to enhance PPA's organizational influence is to integrate the personnel function more closely with other management activities. An implicit theme of this status report on the discipline is that the personnel function stands at critical organizational crossroads. One might logically assume that personnelists would be routinely called upon to assist line managers in such human resources areas as motivation, performance assessment, training, and career development. Moreover, one might expect public agencies to recognize PPA's centrality by linking it more closely to the strategic planning process. Because every conceivable agency activity has human resources implications, and because personnel professionalists possess knowledge and skills that are directly relevant to mission accomplishment, PPA ought to be a critical organizational player. Simply stated, personnelists deserve to play a significant role in helping organizations to manage change (Lovrich, 1996).
To fulfill this potential, however, the discipline must transcend its departmental boundaries. As it is practiced in many organizations, PPA is heavily regarded as a departmental activity, fostering a narrow view of its role in the organization on the part of both line managers and (occasionally) the personnelists themselves. Isolated within departmental walls, some managers have a tendency to become parochial and/or obsessive about procedures. If they exhibit these traits, personnel managers will assuredly be bypassed when important organizational decisions are being made.
Putting PPA back "into the loop" will be no sport for the shortwinded. In many settings decades of ingrained biases and suspicion will need to be overcome. Fortunately, the process of transforming the discipline into a more proactive and strategic organizational force is already underway in progressive personnel systems. The pronounced trend toward the decentralized delivery of personnel services is certainly noteworthy in this regard. Nothing will be more helpful in elevating PPA's organizational structure than face-to-face problem solving with line managers. Ultimately, personnelists will need to prove themselves and to demonstrate the utility of their techniques. If this can be accomplished, then increasing influence will certainly follow.
A specific strategy that might expedite this goal is the use of personnel generalists, an old idea whose time may finally have come. Under this arrangement, broadly trained personnelists are physically located in operation units of the organization. They serve as the line managers' "human relations consultants," handling all staffing duties as well as helping to resolve the more intractable dilemmas (e.g., dealing with problem employees, developing performance standards) that typically plague operating units.
Data Quality and Availability
The final gap in PPA's capacity to live up to its disciplinary potential stems from the relatively non-empirical nature of research in the discipline. The field has frequently been criticized for lacking methodological sophistication add (relatedly) for failing to do an adequate job of evaluating its own techniques. Although these tendencies are gradually improving, the quality of evaluation research in PPA continues to lag far behind that performed in the private sector. Personnel practices in the corporate world are routinely examined through impressive batteries of data collection and statistical analysis, whereas comparable research in government is extremely rare. Specific personnel techniques may be in place for many years before they are empirically assessed and much of the evidence used during the assessment is likely to be anecdotal or qualitative (attitudinal).
The potential contribution that research can make to the personnel function is illustrated by a recent symposium in the Academy of Management Journal. Through macro-analysis, the authors were able to demonstrate that certain personnel activities have a direct positive effect on organizational performance. Differing approaches to staffing, reward, and training were shown to exert varying (yet still positive) impacts on the organizations' bottom lines (Becker and Gerhart, 1996). Conclusions of this nature permit personnelists to make the case that their efforts are not just an overhead expense but that they constitute an important element of "value creation" (Ibid., 780). In addition to improving the personnel function's image (and legitimacy) within the organization, such findings help to justify the field's claim that it deserves a more influential role in the decisionmaking process.
Another impediment to research in PPA is the shortage of largescale data sets. Other than a few specific areas such as EEO/AA statistics, the personnel field offers very few reliable sources of data. And, even where a rigorous effort has been made to aggregate information, the lack of standardization among jurisdictions reduces the reliability of the statistics, Thus, efforts to conduct crossjurisdiction comparisons or to engage in macro-analysis of specific personnel techniques become prohibitively expensive to operationalize.
The solution to this problem--a sell-funded and centrally-directed campaign to standardize data collection--becomes more elusive each year as the federal government trims research funding. The next best alternative would be for the professional organizations, such as the International Personnel Management Association and/or the National Association of State Personnel Executives, to organize a data collection effort. With so many other pressing demands crowding their agendas, the likelihood of any progress in this area is probably remote.
This article began with the observation that PPA's most critical goal should be to maintain its relevance. It must demonstrate its ability to contribute to organizational objectives or its future will indeed be bleak. On the basis of truly impressive accomplishments over a relatively short period of time, there is considerable cause for optimism. Political, economic, and social challenges have propelled a shift in the field's philosophical foundations and engendered a flurry of operational responses. Innovation is now a path of the professional routine and none of the field's cherished techniques is too sacrosanct to avoid scrutiny and possible reengineering. Thanks to the many theoretical and practical changes that have occurred, the profession is almost unrecognizable when compared to the type of personnel management practiced just a few decades ago.
Sufficient challenges remain, however, to keep practitioners and academics from becoming complacent. Overwhelmingly complex dilemmas persist in such areas as the maintenance of employee motivation, the enhancement of the profession's organizational stature, and the need to project modern personnel practices to a wider audience. Meanwhile, PPA must ensure that merit principles are not trampled in the stampede toward responsive and "efficient" government. This diverse and demanding set of responsibilities should provide an exciting agenda as the field continues to mature.
Becker, Brian and Barry Gerhart (1996). "The Impact of Human Resources Management on Organizational Performance: Progress and Prospects.^ ACADEMY OF MANAGEMENT 'f)URNAL (4):779-801. Brudney, Jeff (1996). E-mail message (September 13). Caiden, Gerald (1994). "Administrative Reform--American Style." PUBLIC
ADMINISTRATION REVIEW (March-April):123-128.
Carnevale, David (1995). "Human Capital and High Performance in Public Organizations," in S. Hays and R Kearney (eds.). PUBLIC PERSONNEL ADMINISTRATION: PROBLEMS AND PROSPECTS. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: PrenticeHall.
Carnevale, David and Steven Housel (1989). "Recruitment of Personnel," in Jack Rabin and Colleagues (eds.). HANDBOOK OF PUBLIC PERSONNEL ADMINISTRATION. New York: Marcel Dekker.
Christoph, James (1992). "The Remaking of British Administrative Culture." ADMINISTRATION AND SOCIETY (August):163-181.
Cole, John (1989-90). "Shoring Up Civil Service Reform." THE BUREAUCRAT (Winter):32-36.
Daley, Dennis (1996). E-mail message (September 15). Guy, Mary E. (1996). E-mail message (September 12).
Hays, Steven and Richard Kearney (1997). "Riding the Crest of a Wave: National Performance Review and Public Management Reform." INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION. In press. Hood, Christopher (1992). "A Public Management for All Seasons?" PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION (Spring):3-19.
Hudson Institute (1987). WORKFORCE 2000: WORK AND WORKERS FOR THE 21st CENTURY. Indianapolis: Hudson Institute. Johnston, William (1998). CIVIL SERVICE 2000. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Office of
Kellough, Ed (1996). E-mail message (September 13). Lovrich, Nicholas (1996). E-mail message (August 29). Merit Systems Protection Board (1988). ATTRACTING QUALITY GRADUATES TO THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT: A VIEW OF COLLEGE RECRUITMENT. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office. Meyer, Herbert (1978). "Personnel Directors and the New Corporate Heroes."
Moe, Ronald (1994). "The 'Reinventing Government' Exercise: Misinterpreting the Problem, Misjudging the Consequences." PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION REVIEW (March-April):111-118.
Newland, Chester (1984). "Crucial Issues for Public Personnel Professionals." PUBLIC PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT (Summer):1545.
Nigro, Lloyd and Felix Nigro (1994). THE NEW PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION. Itasca, IL: ftE. Peacock.
Rosen, Bernard (1986). "Crisis in the U.S. Civil Service." PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION REVIEW (March-April):207-214.
Ross, Lynn (1990). "Effective Recruiting: Lessons from Personnel Demonstration Projects." THE BUREAUCRAT (Fall):19-24.
Sayre, Wallace S. (1948). "The Triumph of Technique Over Purpose." PUBLIC ADMINISTRATION REVIEW (Spring):134-137. Shafritz, Jay (1975). PUBLIC PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT: THE HERITAGE OF CIVIL SERVICE. New York: Praeger.
Stewart, Thomas (1996). "Taking on the Last Bureaucracy." FORTUNE (January):105-107.
Thayer, Paul (1980). "Personnel Challenges in the Eighties." PUBLIC PERSONNEL ADMINISTRATION (Fall):327-335.
Thompson, Frank (1993). REVITALIZING STATE AND LOCAL PUBLIC SERVICE. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tompkins, Jonathan (1995). HUMAN RESOURCE MANAGEMENT IN GOVERNMENT. New York: HarperCollins.
U.S. General Accounting Office (1992). THE CHANGING WORKFORCE:
DEMOGRAPHIC ISSUES FACING EMPLOYERS. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing office.
Volcker Commission (1989). LEADERSHIP FOR AMERICA: REBUILDING THE PUBLIC SERVICE. Washington, D.C.: National Commission on the Public Service.
West, Jon and C.M. West (1989). "Job Stress in Public Sector Occupations: Implications for Personnel Managers." REVIEW OF PUBLIC PERSONNEL ADMINISTRATION (Summer):45-65.
Wisconsin Department of Employment Relations (1996). RECRUITING THE BEST AND THE BRIGHTEST: REINVENTING WISCONSIN"S CIVIL SERVICE SYSTEM. Madison: Author.
Wooldridge, Blue and Jennifer Wester (1991). "The Turbulent Environment of Public Personnel Administration: Responding to the Challenges of the Changing Workplace of the Twenty-First Century." PUBLIC PERSONNEL MANAGEMENT (Summer):207-223.…
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: The "State of the Discipline" in Public Personnel Administration. Contributors: Hays, Steven W - Author. Journal title: Public Administration Quarterly. Volume: 20. Issue: 3 Publication date: Fall 1996. Page number: 285+. © Southern Public Administration Education Foundation Winter 2008. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All Rights Reserved.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.