Is Pennsylvania Changing All The Right Players To Bring About Reform?

Pay any attention to Pennsylvania politics, and you quickly figure out that reform is perennially sought and infrequently delivered. Just about every candidate seeking elected office touts a commitment to reform, typically promising to root out waste, fraud, and abuse. Newly added to the debate is the more dramatic pledge, draining the swamp.

For many folks, reform hopes ride on changing the players, with expectation newcomers will act to change the culture of state government and the operating rules.

For decades, Pennsylvanians reliably changed the party holding the governorship, every eight years. That trend was broken when Tom Wolf was elected, moving up the timetable. Each changeover brings substantially different priorities and approaches to state governance.

The membership of the General Assembly has changed dramatically over the past decade. That shift has brought a more conservative bent to spending and policymaking.

Even the third branch of state government, the judiciary, has seen turnover because of retirements, resignations, and removals.

This is satisfying to the citizens for whom getting rid of officeholders is step one in making state government more responsive and accountable. If turnover is the game, then the people are winning. But what about reform? Well, the constant refrain from good government groups, media, and citizens is that there is still too little change and too much dogged adherence to the old ways.

So maybe it is time to look at the influential part of state government that is not susceptible to electoral change, the bureaucracy. Intended to be professional and protected, the rising suspicion is a third “p” has been added – petrified.

Has Civil Service Become An Impediment To More Efficient State Government?

As far back as 1992, David Osborne and Ted Gaebler in Reinventing Government pointed out the fossilizing aspects of civil service. Can it be that the gold standard of professionalizing government employment needs adjusted or pared back? Has protection against the dark side of rampant patronage turned into policy arteriosclerosis? Is the safety blanket of sticking with the tried and tested standing in the way of initiative and innovation?

Such questions may seem politically incorrect and counterintuitive. But a couple of decades ago, Texas, Georgia, and Florida all took concerted action to pretty much replace civil service. Studies have been conducted to measure the impact on pay, performance, protection, plus the satisfaction levels of personnel directors and employees. More recent states to act in a similar vein include Arizona, Colorado, and Tennessee. So there is a track record Pennsylvania can inspect, compare expectations with outcomes, and make a judgment on.

Make no mistake, this is not any broad indictment of the intelligence or capability of the state workforce. Rather, it is a concern about an operating structure that is proving insufficiently flexible or adaptive. Put another way, the system has developed super resistance to injections of reform.

Naturally, those who are cynical about state government are going to have palpitations at any suggestion of rolling back or repealing the civil service system. But as the structural deficit in the state budget deepens year after year, taxpayers are demanding far-reaching and lasting reforms. Something has to give in this clash of contradictions.

Besides, Pennsylvania is no stranger to progressive reforms outliving their shelf-life. The large General Assembly dates back to the 1874 state Constitution, when it was decided that size was a necessary guard against undue special interest influence. Today, many people are convinced a smaller General Assembly will be more efficient, more responsive, and less costly.

Consider the persistent calls for education reform. Since the days of Dick Thornburgh, successive governors have made education reform a priority and a passion. Yet, the arguments over lackluster student performance and reform untried continue unabated. The common explanation is that local control and the large number of independently acting school districts make systemic change hard to get agreement on and even harder to implement. Plus, no one circles the wagons more tightly than vested education interest groups do. But there is another anchor cited as holding back change – the education bureaucracy.

During the Ridge Administration, I asked top-notch Education Secretary Gene Hickok how things were going. His response was memorable: “I am sitting amidst hundreds of employees, and on any given day about six have their oars in the water pulling in the same direction I am.” PDE may be the most notorious department for such paralysis of initiative, but it surely is not the lone example.

Most legislators can recite stories about tangling with bureaucrats who adhere to the way things have always been done and who are practiced at outwaiting administrations with contrary ideas.

Over time, Pennsylvania’s accumulation of law and regulation results in a higher concentration of workers collecting statistics and writing reports and doing the other rituals of administrating. Meanwhile, the frontline folks, such as caseworkers, are underpaid and overloaded with responsibility. So performance suffers. Agencies already having a tough time keeping up are not eager to change things up, as reform requires. Freezing the number of state employees yields relative certainty as to cost, but it says little about the efficiency of state government. That issue depends on a variety of factors such as incentives and motivations. It is here, based on other state experience, that loosening the bindings of civil service has greatest appeal and potential benefit.

Obviously, curtailing civil service would be met with the controversy and contention Pennsylvania politics is famous for. It is more far-reaching than right-to-work, which itself is a proven political fireball. We know that fear of the unknown or the uncertain frequently stops reform (see property taxes). We know that arguments about Pennsylvania’s uniqueness are frequently employed to defend the inexplicable (see state stores). We also know that public employee unions are a formidable resistance force when any proposal threatens the “deal” (see pensions).

But it is impossible to control costs, change direction, and preserve the same system of inputs and outputs. How can we be sure that civil service reform is not a viable solution, without taking a serious look, debating the possibilities, and attempting at least a pilot test? Playing off the popular Life cereal commercials from yesteryear: “Try it – we (taxpayers and reformers) may really like it.”

David A. Atkinson is an Associate of The Susquehanna Valley Center for Public Policy.

The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Susquehanna Valley Center.

Nothing contained here should be considered as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any legislation.