Quin Hillyer: The Landrieu plan to reform bureaucracy

Critics wary of civil service reforms being pushed by New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu should stop trying to defeat the reforms and instead work with the administration to tweak them.

Some of last week’s rhetoric against the amended proposal was too heated. Landrieu’s expressed goals match a growing national awareness, as explained by best-selling author and efficiency-reform advocate Philip K. Howard, that organizations operate more effectively when they combine flexibility with accountability rather than relying on strict, voluminous rules.

Louisiana state government, too, under leadership of an otherwise different political philosophy from Landrieu, has been moving in the same direction, most notably with changes made in 2012 to the teacher tenure system — changes that received some moral support June 10 from a California judge who threw out that state’s tenure system on the basis that current employment rules were so “complex, time-consuming and expensive” as to cause harm to students that “shocks the conscience.” While obviously not legally binding in Louisiana, the California decision powerfully highlighted the problems with overly burdensome civil-service rules.

Awful service to citizens negotiating a city’s permitting or punishments can be almost as unconscionable as bad classrooms are for students.

These are the sorts of problems Landrieu wants to fix. While civil-service protections are important to avoid overpoliticization of government bureaucracies (and associated abuses of power), there is much to be said for letting managers actually manage, meaning to use human reason and judgment to meet needs that no rule can foresee. City employees can better serve the public by following common sense rather than by slavishly adhering to some Regulation Eleventy-leven-Z, Subparagraph Umpteen.

That’s why Howard, author of the best-selling “The Death of Common Sense and The Rule of Nobody,” writes that the “single reform [that] would most improve government ... would be to scrap the current civil service system and replace it with a genuine merit system.”

He continued: “Today, government can’t hire the best people, has little flexibility in managing them, and can’t reward the good ones or punish the bad ones…. [P]ublic employees [should] be treated as professionals — given real responsibility (not smothered by dense bureaucracy) and held accountable for their performance.”

This is precisely what Landrieu’s reforms, in toto, would do. While still maintaining the bulk of the civil-service protections against undue politicization, the mayor wants to give managers more flexibility to promote, or give raises to, exceptional employees, without specific approval each time from the Department of Civil Service; to do fuller evaluations of new employees before their jobs become “permanent”; and to streamline the disciplinary system for poor performance, without abrogating an employee’s ability to contest the poor review. The reforms also would raise employees’ base pay.

In response to comments and complaints about the original proposal, Landrieu’s team submitted revisions on June 12 that showed great openness to constructive criticism and amend its recommendations accordingly. The biggest remaining sticking point, though, is the one where the administration has been the most unyielding — perhaps needlessly so.

Landrieu proposes eliminating the “rule of three,” which restricts hiring choices to just the three highest scorers in a competitive exam. The mayor’s team argues that sometimes the best employees aren’t the best test takers and that the rule thus works to the detriment of effective public service. But union leaders see the rule of three as a bulwark against undue, purely subjective favoritism and are fighting hard to save it.

The compromise should be obvious: Change the current system into a rule of five or rule of seven, or something still meaningful but a bit more flexible. Surely the best potential employees will at least be able to score in the top five or seven on an objective, job-appropriate test, even if not in the top three.

That dispute aside, Landrieu is right to want to join the incipient state and national movement away from hidebound regulations. When niggling rules predominate, the rules rather than actual people are held responsible for bad service — and, as Howard wrote, “rigid seniority rules” and other restrictions create situations in which “accountability is virtually nonexistent.” In a republic, accountability for good government should come not through stultifying codification but through the ballot box.

New Orleans native Quin Hillyer is a contributing editor for National Review. You can follow him on Twitter, @QuinHillyer. His email address is qhillyer@theadvocate.com, and he blogs here at http://blogs.the advocate.com/quin-essential.