Gov. John Hickenlooper wants to attempt what would be the most sweeping changes in 40 years to the state’s personnel system, which now is governed by regulations that rigidly dictate how state employees are hired and fired.
Fundamental changes would take a constitutional amendment, a heavy lift politically, while others could come in the form of legislation or revisions to state rules — still likely to be controversial.
Any change is uncertain; previous efforts to reform the system in recent years have failed.
But Hickenlooper, a Democrat, says the goal is to make it easier to attract and retain talented state employees.
“At this point, everything is in discussion,” Hickenlooper said, “but our effort is to make sure that we take advantage of the experience and talent of our workforce, but at the same time, we create the flexibility within agencies that we can manage the enterprise — whatever it is — for maximum success.”
“I think there’s a sweet spot in there someplace where we can get the interests of the workforce and the interests of the state” to align, he said.
The level of chatter about the potential changes is high among state employees, who haven’t gotten a raise in three years and who wouldn’t get a raise next year under Hickenlooper’s proposed budget. Meanwhile, their share of pension and health costs has steadily increased.
“We take these proposals extremely seriously,” said Scott Wasserman, executive director of Colorado WINS, a union with several thousand dues-paying state workers who, however, don’t have collective bargaining rights. “Our goal is to work in partnership with the governor to improve state services, while also maintaining” the current system’s integrity.
Wasserman said the union would take any specific proposals to its members for input.
Hickenlooper’s administration hasn’t outlined specific proposals. It is looking at issues ranging from existing limitations on the number of candidates that can be considered for a job to “bumping rights” that guarantee senior employees who get laid off can push less-senior workers out of their positions.
“Colorado is somewhat unusual in that its human resources management authority is embedded in the constitution rather than in just statute,” said Leslie Scott, executive director of the National Association of State Personnel Executives. “That can create some challenges in implementing some change.”
The state’s personnel system was born in the Progressive Era, first added to the constitution in 1918 and intended to create a merit-based system for hiring employees, free of cronyism and political patronage. The system, last revised by voters in 1970, also includes various laws and personnel rules that further interpret constitutional provisions or expand upon them.
The rules apply to about 30,000 “classified” state workers, including some at universities who are not faculty or administrators. Employees of the judicial and legislative branches are not covered.
The “Rule of Three,” for example, is in the constitution and requires that any classified employee be hired only after it is determined they are “one of the three persons ranking highest” for the job.
Kathy Nesbitt, director of the Department of Personnel and Administration, said the way the rule works under the current system applicant screening is separated from hiring. Often, an agency has a panel, made up of people from inside or outside the agency who review job applications.
The panel selects three applicants from among the pool, and sends them on to the manager who will do the hiring. Nesbitt said that in one recent hiring situation, she personally saw how only interviewing three candidates was limiting.
“When I interviewed them, two individuals, while they may have minimally met the qualifications, the position would have far exceeded their capabilities,” she said. “So I was left with just one person.
“I’m thinking that a pool should at least be 10 or 11 applicants.”
If an agency doesn’t like any of the three final candidates, it has to wait six months to re-post the job, Nesbitt said.
“Basically, what’s happened is we’ve taken fitness out of the equation for the position,” she said. “We’ve basically drilled it down, and it all goes into minimum qualifications and experiences. That’s only half of the equation.”
The constitution also requires that classified employees be Colorado residents, so hiring qualified workers outside the state requires a waiver from the State Personnel Board.
“Let’s say you’re looking for maybe a person that specializes in water rights or a person that has certain qualifications in mining,” Nesbitt said. “Only looking in Colorado really limits the pool of applicants for a particular position.”
Still, Nesbitt said the administration was unlikely to pursue major changes to the residency requirement because of the number of unemployed Coloradans. Instead, she said, a change might be targeted only toward management and principal positions.
Most controversial might be the administration’s effort to change “bumping rights” that now allow senior employees to move into positions occupied by newer employees in the event of layoffs.
“Basically, this rule bumps out a person who is otherwise performing satisfactorily, or in an even worse case scenario, someone who is a stellar employee,” she said.
The administration wants to limit bumping to only vacant positions for which a laid-off employee meets minimum qualifications.
Wasserman said employees themselves are divided on this issue, adding, “If you’re very senior, you have a different perspective on bumping rights.”
Nesbitt said the issue of temporary employment, which is constitutionally limited to six months, is another sore spot. The prohibition frequently hamstrings agencies that want to hire employees for a specific project, such as an information technology upgrade, that might take closer to a year, she said.
The result is these services sometimes must be outsourced, Nesbitt said.
Criticism of the state personnel system dates even back to 1938, when a report under then-Gov. Ralph Carr opined, “the purpose of securing for the state the best and most efficient service possible has been defeated by inability to change the outmoded machinery.”
A 1993 blue-ribbon commission report blasted the personnel system as outmoded, saying, “Colorado’s highly professional and dedicated state workforce is not well-served by the current system, and if the state expects to attract and retain quality employees in the years to come, reform is necessary.”
But a 2004 statewide ballot issue to overhaul the personnel system failed, with 60.8 percent of Coloradans against and 39.2 percent in favor.
Nesbitt said the last update in 1970 was too long ago.
“If you think about what the workforce looked like 40 years ago, you can imagine just in technology alone going from now we have iPhones and iPods and before we had rotary phones,” Nesbitt said. “I think 40 years for a policy review is overdue.”