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A Question of Will 

The state decentralized its civil service department years ago, and the sky did not fall

For all the high-profile problems that confront Mayor Mitch Landrieu (crime, police corruption and a crumbling urban infrastructure), one of the most daunting challenges confronting him is the need to reform the city's civil service system.

  Stop yawning. This is important.

  Reforming civil service is difficult for a lot of reasons, but two stand out:

  1. The local civil service system is governed by a complex web of rules stretching from the City Charter to the state Constitution. That complexity makes it difficult for reformers to gain traction — or even to engage people on the subject — which, in turn, helps maintain the outmoded status quo.

  2. Although embedded in the state Constitution, the city's Civil Service Department has broad powers to fix itself, but apparently little will to do so. As a result, the local system is a nation unto itself, immune from outside "interference" (read: reform efforts) and able to tie even well-intentioned public officials' plans into knots when it comes to hiring and firing employees.

  Another roadblock to reform efforts is the notion that civil service is a sacred cow. Opponents of reform are quick to paint even the most honest efforts to improve the system as a return to the old spoils system. That canard has worked for years, but several recent developments suggest the once-impregnable wall around civil service may be crumbling.

  Last year, the nonpartisan Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR) issued a report calling for a systematic overhaul of civil service. BGR, which can hardly be accused of supporting a spoils system, pointed out that the local civil service system, which functions as a central (and very powerful) human resources office for all city departments, is "archaic, overly centralized and inefficient." Many who know the ins and outs of City Hall say that's being kind.

  A recent example of how civil service can actually impede progress came earlier this month when the Civil Service Commission denied Inspector General Ed Quatrevaux's request to create a four-person anti-fraud unit to monitor almost $2 billion in construction contracts for new public schools. The commission instead approved two temporary positions.

  Quatrevaux issued a statement accusing the commission of being "detached from operational reality." Those are not unique sentiments, but rarely do public officials express them so openly and candidly. Quatrevaux went on to say that the commission's decision represents "another example of the stultifying effect civil service has on city government. It also explains why so much has been outsourced from City Hall over the years."

  Landrieu agrees in principle with Quatrevaux and the BGR. The mayor has stated that he believes the local civil service system needs a major overhaul, and he has specifically criticized the system's so-called "bumping" policy. That policy allows senior laid-off city workers to claim the jobs of employees with less seniority working in similar posts elsewhere in city government.

  In the face of pressure from BGR and the mayor, civil service's days as a sacred cow may be numbered — but that doesn't mean a return to the spoils system. Among other things, BGR proposes better funding and modernized technology for the department, along with decentralizing it so individual city agencies and departments can have more say-so in writing job descriptions and hiring and promoting workers.

  Given the problems encountered by Quatrevaux and others in recent years, those recommendations make sense. The state decentralized its civil service department years ago and the sky did not fall.

  Truth is, the Civil Service Department already has the authority to make the changes that BGR, Landrieu and others support. The five-member commission simply has to summon the will to do so.

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