GeorgiaGain or GeorgiaLoss? the Great Experiment in State Civil Service Reform

By Sanders, Robert M. | Public Personnel Management, Summer 2004 | Go to article overview

GeorgiaGain or GeorgiaLoss? the Great Experiment in State Civil Service Reform


Sanders, Robert M., Public Personnel Management


After guiding Georgia through several successful yet controversial reforms as governor, Senator Zell Miller enacted his greatest change by reorganizing the state's personnel system. The overhaul, entitled "GeorgiaGain," immediately created the most dramatic reforms in state public service since the Pendleton Act of 1883. Georgia would become the only state to dismantle its civil service and create a totally unclassified labor force hired through a decentralized personnel structure. Through the new program, many traditional employee protections were eliminated, with salaries determined by revised evaluations and a pay-for-performance system. State officials assert that efficiency has improved. Findings indicate that the largest raises have been given only to employees rated as outstanding, while the amount of "habitual" outstanding annual evaluations has decreased. Pay increases across the board also decreased, and more inadequate workers have departed since reform. However, overall, all types of employees have resigned in greater numbers each year, with the majority being the average employee, even though average workers received the greatest number of promotions. Survey findings illustrate that many state workers have also challenged GeorgiaGain's claims of enhanced evaluations, compensation and productivity.

A Novel Approach Toward State Merit Service

In 1996 Senator Zell Miller, then governor of Georgia, sought to leave another legacy from his popular administration, in this case, a restructuring of the state's merit service system. Miller hoped for a bureaucracy that would motivate, reward and retain high-quality public employees. The reorganization was predicated on the notion that management and employees were jointly responsible for optimum job performance. While focusing on a new performance compensation system, the governor sought to re-engineer job classifications and other state personnel processes. In his first State of the State address, Miller promised to revise the 53 year-old system, claiming it had gone from a solution to a problem. Job vacancies were taking up to two months to fill, and because of massive paperwork and a lengthy appeals process, the state was taking between 12 and 18 months to dismiss employees performing poorly. Miller was particularly concerned with the lack of training given to supervisors and managers in the use of the existing performance evaluation system.

Skillful in directing the Georgia legislature through many reforms (including his successful Lottery for Education program), Act 816, "Merit System Reform," was enacted, the most significant change in the state's personnel system since its inception. It was also the most epic public personnel restructuring in the United States since President Carter's federal Civil Service Reform Act of 1978. (1)

Through his Merit System Reform, Miller emphasized the politically popular notion that state government would operate in the same manner as private business.

Improving the productivity of the state's workforce would be goal number one. This overhaul, named "GeorgiaGain," focused on a pay-for-performance system. Agency efficiency would increase as low-performing employees would be identified and retrained. The Merit System would manage public employees, affording all new hires no civil service protections. Instead, they would be placed in an "employment at will" status after the probationary period. Over time, as those in the protected class retired or left, all agency positions would be unprotected. Georgia was now the only state to completely dismantle its civil service framework.

The Governor's GeorgiaGain Task Force was charged with recommending changes in job classifications, while the state Merit System and various agencies' human resource offices would implement the policy. The role of the Merit System would change from enforcer of civil service rules and regulations to "advisor" in support of agency-directed personnel programs. …

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