Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

Merit or Partisanship: The Future of the Wisconsin Civil Service System

By Jackson WeberPublished February 25, 2016

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Despite Wisconsin's century-old tradition of merit-based civil service, Wisconsin legislators and Governor Scott Walker recently altered the system in favor of a more partisan version. Gone are the days of civil service examinations and here are the days of a personal connection and resume-based hiring system.
    During the late 19th and early 21st century, Wisconsin Congressman, Governor, and Senator Robert La Follette served as a major leader of the Progressive Movement. Among the many reforms La Follette championed as Governor, one of the most important initiatives was civil service reform. Until just recently, Wisconsin's 110-year-old merit-based civil service system held strong. That all changed when current Governor Scott Walker returned from his failed 2016 presidential campaign to restart his attacks on public sector workers that brought him into the national spotlight in the first place.

    A strong merit-based civil service system is critical in order to maintain stability in state government and prevent a political appointee "spoils system" from denying the state's most qualified applicants access to public sector jobs. Senate Bill 285 on civil service reforms, recently passed by the Wisconsin state legislature and signed by Governor Walker, opens the door for exactly the type of instability and "spoils system" that Progressive Era leaders like La Follette were so concerned about. SB 285 eliminates Wisconsin's civil service examination, concentrating hiring decisions in the governor's administration, gets rid of protections for more senior employees during layoffs, and adds a new system of bonuses. Those changes will affect upwards of 30,000 public sectors workers.

    Instead of civil service examinations, resumes and personal connections will gain importance in the hiring process. That change alone provides the opportunity for administrations to simply focus on hiring political supporters. With each gubernatorial election, massive turnover in state employees may occur. Civil servants learning on the fly would then staff each new administration, as opposed to merit-tested servants with greater experience. Other states, including Arizona, Colorado, and Tennessee, passed similar civil service reforms in 2012.

    Although there are certainly some civil service reforms that can improve the current system, these changes do not do that and do too much to erode what previously existed. The length of time involved in hiring civil servants certainly creates issues filling job vacancies. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, it takes the Department of Corrections an average of 3.4 months to fill an appointment. For the Department of Safety and Professional Services, it takes even longer with an average of around 5 months. The Walker administration has not yet provided information on the average time it takes to fill appointments in general. Nevertheless, it is not totally clear how the actions in Senate Bill 285 would speed up the hiring process.

    As an alternative to the Walker administration reforms, a more moderated approach could have integrated civil service examinations with resume and connection based hiring. That type of reform would allow the administration to find appointees in a more timely manner, but would also assure that appointees are competent enough to perform their duties by maintaining the requirement of a civil service examination. Such a proposal provides greater flexibility in filling vacancies to the administration, while also protecting the civil service system from becoming overly partisan. Having a fully functioning civil service is essential to ensuring efficient government operations and effectively serving the public.

    Unfortunately, Governor Walker and the Republican dominated state legislature already made Senate Bill 285 into law. Despite public concern, they proceeded with their reforms as planned and made no effort to moderate them. Moving forward, Wisconsin elected officials and the public must be certain that the civil service is fully functioning, but also avoids becoming politicized at the expense of the public.