Our Views: A sleeker civil service?

If there are valid objections to the new rules for hiring and firing at New Orleans City Hall, the notion that Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s proposal hasn’t been fully discussed is not one of them. The majority of the Civil Service Commission approved the Landrieu plan, noting that the changes have been the subject of years of discussions and frequent amendment during those talks.

Those amendments were also under fire from commission staff, saying that last-minute changes of import were made, but the commissioners approved them 3-1, saying that the issue has been discussed almost to death.

That’s fair enough, but there is no question that this is a significant change in the way hiring will be done in City Hall. There is also no question that this is in line with how many other governments across the country are making changes to civil service organizations.

How will the changes work in practice? Adjustments to more than 30 civil service rules will give supervisors greater flexibility in hiring, evaluating, promoting and rewarding employees.

The critics can be put into two camps: employee groups and unions who like the traditional system because it tends to reward seniority, and those who fear politics will creep into discretionary hiring by supervisors.

New Orleans’ police union filed a lawsuit against the new rules. Police forces tend to be defenders of seniority and traditional civil service rules.

Are the new rules proof against favoritism, discriminatory hiring or other abuses? Probably no rule is, and the old rules often enough were not at City Hall.

The Landrieu changes jettison the old “rule of three,” hallowed by more than a century of practice across the country. A job would go to one of the top three applicants, usually as measured by a civil service test. The administration has said the rule eliminates from consideration qualified candidates who could be a better fit for a job based on characteristics other than having the highest test scores, such as additional years of experience.

What leads cities and states across the country to jettison such traditional protections against favoritism? In part it is the ideology of running government “like a business,” with the hope that more efficiency and drive will result; managers often decry legendarily difficult processes of firing civil servants who don’t perform.

In part it is the changing nature of government service, a change that is also being pushed at the state level by policies of Gov. Bobby Jindal. That latter point is why the Landrieu changes ought to be watched elsewhere in the state.

Jindal is proud of having reduced state employment, in part by privatizing the old charity hospital system and other state institutions. That gradual shift of government from the direct provision of services means that the skill-sets, to use a buzzword, are different when it comes to overseeing contracts, whether it is a hospital management contract or a nonprofit organization providing social services.

The move toward supervisor government instead of service government is something Louisiana and New Orleans are apt to see more of in future. What Landrieu, and more importantly his successors, must guard against is the appearance of politicizing hiring instead of promoting efficiency. And voters choosing the next mayor, and the next governor, ought to keep that in mind.