Human Resource Practices in State Government: Findings from a National Survey

By Selden, Sally Coleman; Ingraham, Patricia Wallace et al. | Public Administration Review, September 2001 | Go to article overview

Human Resource Practices in State Government: Findings from a National Survey


Selden, Sally Coleman, Ingraham, Patricia Wallace, Jacobson, Willow, Public Administration Review


Since the early 1990s, many state civil service systems have been attacked as the "quiet crisis" has become louder. Critics characterize civil service and personnel systems as rigid, regressive, rule bound, and cumbersome. Public managers complain that existing systems impede their ability to manage and make critical personnel decisions. Employees are frustrated because they are not adequately compensated and do not receive well-deserved recognition. Political officials depict personnel systems as unresponsive and inefficient. Civil servants grumble that the continued criticism of their work is caused by a system that was adopted for a workforce with different challenges and needs. Some scholars contend that public personnel administration is characterized more by procedures, rules, and techniques than by purpose or results.

In response to the litany of concerns raised by stakeholders in the name of performance and efficiency, various personnel reforms have swept through state governments. Public managers have been encouraged to look to the private sector for examples of good human resource management and to close the gap between the rigidity of civil service systems and the flexibility of human resource practices in private industry (Cipolla 1996). There has been an axiomatic acceptance by political leaders that private-sector management practices are "good," "effective," and "efficient," while public sector ones are "bad," "ineffective," and "inefficient."

While a number of studies have underscored cutting-edge innovations in public personnel systems, substantially less research has inventoried personnel practices comprehensively across state governments to identify trends (for an exception, see Carnevale 1995). State governments are a particularly interesting unit of analysis because they employ approximately 4.7 million individuals, almost 2 million more people than the federal government (U.S. Bureau of the Census 1999a, 1999b). Moreover, as Hays and Kearney (1992, 381) observe, "states have ... acquired a well-deserved reputation as incubators (or laboratories) of innovation that are ultimately transported to the federal government." In 1978, Alan K. Campbell, while serving as chairperson of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, recognized the importance of state innovations: "I have followed with considerable interest the progress in some ... States and must conclude that while Federal policy is of tremendous importance, the States (California, Oregon, Wisconsin, Florida, to name but a few) are in many cases charting the direction in which I believe the Federal Government must move" (Campbell 1978, in Dresang 1982). Currently, states are adopting human resource management practices that are forging new directions for the field and the practice of public personnel.

This article focuses on key personnel functions--particularly areas that have been highlighted by recent reports (for example, Little Hoover Commission and Winter Commission)--including general responsibility for personnel functions, workforce planning, selection, classification, performance evaluation, and reward systems. The article seeks to identify trends and emerging practices in state government. The data reported in this article were collected by the Government Performance Project (GPP) in 1998.

Civil Service in State Government

The origin of state merit systems are inextricably linked to the depoliticization of the civil service. The first state civil service law was enacted in New York in 1883--the same year Congress passed the Pendleton Act. More than 115 years ago, the Pendleton Act provided a blueprint for a modern, unified, and politically impartial civil service. The hallmarks of a merit system included tenure, the use of written, competitive examinations, and neutral administration (Sylvia 1989). In the 20 years following the Pendleton Act and New York's first civil service law, no other state established a merit system (Aronson 1974). …

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