Boots & Sabers

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0620, 29 Sep 15

Reforming Wisconsin’s Civil Service Law

My column for the West Bend Daily News is online. Here it is:

In Wisconsin, the fall legislative session that occurs in the first year of a governor’s term is unpredictable. The hard work of the biennial budget is complete and both parties are usually nursing some political wounds. The governor is three years away from another election and legislators are also a comfortable distance away from electoral accountability. In the past, this session was often a session in which bored legislators pushed forward pet projects that stand little chance of success but create little tempests.

Thankfully, it appears that the Republicans are not going to waste the fall session this year with trivial gestures. Instead, they are poised to continue pushing Wisconsin forward with serious, thoughtful and consequential reforms — from repealing Wisconsin’s antiquated protectionist minimum markup law to reeling in the rogue Government Accountability Board. One proposal that has the potential to greatly improve Wisconsin’s state government by modernizing its civil service law was announced by Sen. Roger Roth, R-Appleton, and Rep. Jim Steineke, R-Kaukauna.

Wisconsin’s civil service law was originally implemented in 1905 during the Progressive Era to create a professional workforce to run our government that was free of political manipulation. It was designed to end the practice of patronage, whereby elected officials would give out government jobs to their friends and supporters irrespective of their qualifications. Wisconsin’s civil service law was a landmark law that has benefited Wisconsin for generations.

Even great laws, however, need a little tweaking from time to time. Over the last century, the civil service law has become too cumbersome and somnolent in the modern labor economy. This is impeding the ability of the citizens of Wisconsin to attract and retain the best possible employees. Put simply, the civil service law has made it far too difficult to hire and fire the right people, and Wisconsin suffers for it.

The difficulty in firing bad or mediocre government employees has been a problem for a long time. Civil service protections have long since drifted toward aggressively protecting bad employees at the expense of the citizens’ right to get good service for their tax dollars. For years, the news has been full of stories about government employees who were caught doing outrageous things — like watching pornography on the job or running a personal business on state time — and are retained through an arbitrator’s perverse definition of “just cause.”

The statistics bear out the difficulty of firing government employees. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ most recent Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, private sector employees are almost three times more likely to be fired for cause than government employees. This is not because the private sector employees are three times more incompetent or corrupt than public sector employees. It is because private sector employers have more latitude to purge their staff of bad employees for the benefit of all.

Roth and Steineke’s bill would put in place a more sensible process for termination that does a better job of protecting the citizens’ interests while still protecting state employees from arbitrary termination. The bill would better define “just cause” instead of leaving the vast swaths of gray area for an arbitrator or judge to abuse. It would also put a deadline of six or seven months on the appeals process instead of letting it drag out for years as it does today. These are extremely sensible reforms that, frankly, are long overdue and do not go far enough in correcting this flaw in the system — but it is a great start.

The hiring process for government employees is also overly burdensome. This problem is about to get a lot worse. Our aging workforce is affecting the government sector just like the private sector, but the wide availability of early retirement in the government sector makes the problem much more acute. According to the bill’s authors, 8 percent of state employees are already eligible for retirement. In five years, that grows to 23 percent. In 10 years, it will be 40 percent. The accelerating outflow of state employees who are moving on to their well-earned retirement puts pressure on the state to hire a lot of replacement employees.

The problem is that the current state hiring process relies on a clunky civil service exam that often measures little about a prospective employee’s skills that are germane to the job for which they are applying. After an applicant completes the civil service test, the lengthy and bureaucratic process that follows can take months before a job offer is extended. Unfortunately for the citizens of Wisconsin, people who are really good at their jobs rarely stay on the job market for that long. The result is that the citizens must often settle on the more mediocre applicants who were passed over by other potential employers.

Roth and Steineke’s bill would switch the state’s hiring process to a modern, resume-based application system similar to that used in the vast majority of the private sector. This would allow state hiring managers to move more quickly to identify and hire the most qualified people available. The bill would also implement a 60-day hiring goal to help prevent the state from missing out on the best people on the market.

The immediate reactions to the proposed reforms from the defenders of the entrenched bureaucracy were as predictable as they were sad. The shrill shrieks of “patronage” and “attacking public employees” emanating from the partisan and the ignorant before a bill had even been introduced were a pitiful illustration of how intolerant some people are to even the idea that we should discuss ways to improve our government for the citizens of Wisconsin.

The fall session of the Wisconsin Legislature has the potential to leave a positive legacy for Wisconsin for generations to come. Our elected leaders should steadily continue to push Wisconsin forward.


0620, 29 September 2015


  1. GreyMatters

    Agreed That…”Our Elected Leaders Should Steadily Continue To Push Wisconsin Forward!”

  2. Mark Maley

    Spit out my coffee on the hilarity of the later paragraphs

    So, the other side is partisan and ignorant
    Because they disagree with this legislation that they knew was coming
    you are nonpartisan and enlightened ?

    Funny guy

  3. old baldy


    While you have a lengthy column espousing the merits of WI Civil Service reform, you blew youc chance at credibility when you chose to parrot the Roth-Steineke bill rather than do some original research.

    While I have been out of state service for a while, I can tell you sincerely that when I worked there and hired/fired staff we: hired on the basis of a resume review or Achievement History Questionaire; extended probationary periods; fired or let folks go because they didn’t meet conditions of the probationary period. We tried to hire the “best and brightest”, but were often stymied by the inability to negotiate pay or benefits (thank TGT for that).

    I don’t know of anyone in the last 15 years I worked for the state that was hired off a “clunky civil service exam”. They were all resume or experience based hires.

    All delays I was involved with were with OSER or DOA or their predecessor agencies, not the hiring agency.

    Poor justification for big changes to Civil Service, even worse journalism on your part.

  4. Conley

    It’s an opinion column, dumbass, not journalism.

  5. old baldy


    My bad. Then you will agree it is an opinion based on a poorly researched set of assumptions?

  6. Conley

    The old saying about “assume” does coming to mind.

  7. old baldy


    Good work. You drilled down to the root of Owen’s op-ed.

  8. A State Worker

    I am a state worker who has taken several State exams. They all are geared to the job applied for. They are a useful tool to weed out those who fail it. One position I applied for had over 600 applicants, about 250 failed it. All of the job interviews also required a resume in addition. The only negative aspect is the time duration from testing to hiring,
    The prospect of a proposed 2 uear probationary period is absurd, as the beginning wages for some positions are at $13 per hour.

  9. Fairs Fare

    I have to say I typically like and agree with “some” of what you say in your columns. I’m glad someone pointed out that this is just an opinion piece. It is short on facts and long on opinion. That’s not always bad but in this case it appears to be a “jump on the band wagon” piece that can’t be factually supported. Kind of like the prevailing wage column. I’m sure if will get done anyway because here in WI loyalty to political party comes before common sense.

    I’m glad to see the multi-screen name poster is back and has added a couple of new identities. I wonder who could be doing such a thing.

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