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Who Says Government Doesn't Work

Optimas 2001 - Service: The New York State Department of Civil Service used private-sector best practices to remake itself.

February 28, 2001
Related Topics: Service
George C. Sinnott recalls walking into the New York State Department of Civil Service and seeing desks piled so high with cartons of paper that he couldn't see who was sitting behind them. He remembers thinking: "This place just doesn't function."

    In January of 1995, Sinnott got the opportunity to turn things around when he took over as commissioner of the department. Nine months later, Governor George Pataki asked him to head a task force to improve the state's civil service system. Since then, the commissioner has led a successful campaign to overhaul the department and to implement the governor's vision of replacing costly, cumbersome, and inefficient processes with exemplary customer service.

    "Initially, everything we were doing was just playing major come-from-behind catch-up," Sinnott says. "But a pretty interesting thing happened; Governor Pataki brought out the best in me, and people in the department brought out the best in each other. It just caught fire."

    Armed with a strong background in civil service, Sinnott was ready to prove that big government agencies do not have to be slow-moving machines. "I have spent a good portion of my adult life listening to people knocking government," he says. "Quite frankly, I've found that to be offensive, and in most instances it's not true. We in government can match our wits and collective talents and energies with the best."

    Before joining Pataki's cabinet, Sinnott had served as director of personnel for the town of Hempstead and for Nassau County, both in New York. He had also been appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo to the New York State Employment Relations Board, and was responsible for administration of the State Labor Relations Act.

    The task force included representatives from the Governor's Office of State Operations, the Governor's Office of Employee Relations, the Division of the Budget, and the Department of Civil Service. To develop the reform plan, the task force sought input from other government agencies, private-sector organizations, and state employee unions.

    Sinnott also gleaned ideas from 27 reports that had been submitted by organizations such as the Business Council of New York State and the Office of the State Comptroller, groups that had been ignored by previous administrations. The task force presented a plan and Sinnott's staff immediately set it in motion.

    Within three years, the department made a pivotal transformation. The list of accomplishments includes revamping a sorely inefficient testing and exam-scoring system; implementing a more flexible promotion test process; reducing the number of job titles by thousands; repairing the process of qualifying provisional employees; crafting legislation to allow transfer between agencies; developing new information technology systems; and executing an aggressive recruitment campaign.

    Once known for gross inefficiencies and resistance to reform, New York's civil service department is now recognized for its extraordinary turnaround.

    The department, which is based in Albany, the state capital, employs 689 people and covers more than 75 state agencies, 104 municipalities, 170,383 state employees, and 383,246 municipal employees. It is responsible for providing the state with a qualified and motivated workforce through examinations, personnel services, and technical assistance.

    Its customer pool is not only large but is also made up of diverse government agencies that employ people in several occupations, ranging from transportation workers and health-care professionals to law-enforcement officers and technical personnel. Seven labor groups represent the workforce. The department also administers benefits, including one of the largest public employer health insurance plans in the country, which covers 1.1 million people.

    The task-force proposal was ambitious, and had to be implemented without additional resources. Pataki's administration had inherited a huge budget deficit. A major staff downsizing followed. Despite the grim fiscal realities, Sinnott's team achieved its goals. "From time to time I get credit for that, but I had no choice in the matter," he says. "There was no money to ask for."

    From the start, Department of Civil Service staff members embraced management's vision. "It's a whole new organizational culture," says department veteran Crystal Hamelink, assistant director of staffing services. "It was the first time they laid out a time line [for initiatives], and they were communicated very well."

    New York's civil service system went from being among the worst in the country to one of the best. "Government has an obligation to achieve the right results, and to do it in a way that follows the right process and not only is fair but also looks fair," says Robert DuBois, director of the employee benefits division for the department. "We are a service organization, and our employees are our state's most valued asset."

    Among the top achievements were transfer legislation, provisional reduction, and introduction of cutting-edge technology.

    In 1996, New York passed a bill allowing employees to transfer between state agencies. In the private sector, preventing employees from moving between departments would seem inflexible if not absurd. Yet in Albany, it was just the sort of legality that mired the system in inefficiencies. "Employees used to go out one door to get back in another door," says Bill Doyle, director of staffing services for the department. "It was disruptive to people. The bill opened opportunities for career development and reduced the necessity for layoffs during downsizing."

    New York State law requires that candidates take an exam to earn a competitive position. When the civil service task force issued its reform proposal in 1995, more than 6,000 employees were serving provisionally. These state employees were placed in job positions while waiting to qualify by examination. Many of those employees had served in their positions without qualifying for 5, 10, and even 20 years. By improving test-processing times and using a promotion test battery, all provisional employees were quickly tested. Since then, the number of provisional employees has been reduced to 1,455.

    Some of the most visible improvements in customer service have taken place on the Internet. An updated information technology system drastically improves the ease and efficiency of processing information and communicating with customers, who are spread throughout the state. "Our infrastructure upgrade will now allow us to develop more interactive applications for the Web through real computer-programming efforts, rather than having program staff create static Web pages using off-the-shelf products," explains Ric Barre, director of information resource management.

    The department Web site offers state employers and employees a broad range of information, including job listings and exam dates. The Employee Benefits Division's secure Web site offers thousands of pages of easy-to-navigate information.

    Edward Blodgett, from the New York State Department of Transportation Region 4 Personnel Office in Monroe County, says the changes have had a positive impact on his office. "Some of the recent things they've done, like posting civil service announcements on their Web site, have been good both for personnel people, like me, and for employees and prospective employees," he says.

    Department of Civil Service employees say their accomplishments wouldn't have been possible without a culture of creativity, innovation, and adaptability. "We went from being an organization that was slow to change to one that is a lot more fluid and dynamic," DuBois says.

    Lisa Scoons, manager of communications, says the department bases its approach on best practices in the human resources industry. "One thing that's different in this administration is that it's okay to borrow ideas from the private sector," she says.

    Sinnott admits that there have been kinks in the chain of accomplishments. The department was still patting itself on the back for new test-scoring procedures when it received phone calls from irritated citizens who had received congratulatory notices on civil service exams, even if they had failed. "They thought we were being smart."

    Despite bumps in the road, the administration is proud of New York's civil service success story and is able to report more progress each year. "The minute you even think of the notion of getting comfortable, you find out there are so many things going on, especially in system technology," says Sinnott. "The times call for greater challenges."

Workforce, March 2001, pp. 58-60 Subscribe Now!

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