The GOP's Red Dawn
Gov. Scott Walker Takes on Civil Service System

Burned on the presidential campaign trail, Gov. Scott Walker has hit the ground running back in Madison, seeking to pile up his “throne of skulls” even higher. His latest target: the state civil service system, which he says is inefficient and ill-suited to the realities of the twenty-first century workforce. The Journal Sentinel reports:

Just three days after ending his presidential run, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker sought to reassert his conservative credentials Thursday by backing a proposed overhaul of the state’s civil service system for 30,000 employees, saying its safeguards against political patronage in hiring and firing state workers need to keep up with the times and the crush of retiring baby boomers.

Four years after repealing most collective bargaining for most public employees, Walker and two top Republican lawmakers are seeking to: eliminate the state’s civil service exams, replacing them with a résumé-based system for merit hiring; stop allowing longtime employees to avoid termination by “bumping” other workers with less seniority out of their jobs; and shorten by more than half the process for employees to appeal their dismissal or discipline.

It’s too early to say whether Walker’s plan is exactly on target, as the details won’t be released until next week. But it’s clear that civil service system, based on lifetime employment, is need of a serious rethink in the context of an aging population, an increasingly fluid job market, and ever-more automation of clerical and administrative work. Shaking up the civil service system is key to nibbling away at the vast 19th and 20th century administrative apparatuses that most states and the federal government have constructed.

Walker’s opponents argue that scrapping civil service exams would open up public sector jobs to political influence and patronage. This is a legitimate concern. But as Francis Fukuyama has noted in these pages, the existing civil service system, once a bulwark against patronage and a guarantor of professionalism, no longer performs particularly well in these areas. The civil service has become re-politicized despite tenure rules and merit-based exams designed to shield it from political influence. In other words, political bias is a problem either way.

Whether Walker’s particular brand of reform is the right way to downsize our bloated and inefficient public sector remains to be seen. And even as the ongoing trends mentioned above should change how we run government, some offices and bureaus will still need long-term service from well-qualified professionals. But it is clear that major reform is needed, and its ironic that the people most resistant to any kind of reform—public sector unions, blue model Democrats—are also the people who depend most on an active and effective federal government. Reform-oriented politicians across the country should be experimenting with new models and seeing how the voters and taxpayers—not the public employees—respond. As Scott Walker has shown before in Wisconsin, these two groups don’t always see eye-to-eye.

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