After years of often bitter debate, a recently released tally of job performance evaluations under the state’s new system found that nearly every Louisiana civil servant rated high enough to receive a pay raise — a result that left many wondering what the point of making the change was.
Ninety-six percent of the 37,736 government workers classified under the civil service system were rated “exceptional” or “successful,” ratings that qualified them for pay raises, according to the report released earlier this month. That’s pretty much the same percentage of state workers who qualified year after year under the old system.
“Why do evaluations if everyone is going to come out with flying colors? I’m not persuaded that almost every single employee is doing a great job,” said state Rep. John Schroder, the Covington Republican who as a member of the House Appropriations Committee has taken a special interest in the state’s workforce.
“We should stop calling it merit raises if everyone is going to get one, and call it what it is,” Schroder said.
Reacting to perceptions that state workers had fallen into a one-size-fits-all practice that gave everyone the same annual pay bumps regardless of how well they performed on the job, legislators and Gov. Bobby Jindal set about changing the evaluation system.
Though loudly fought from 2008 into 2012, the controversy surrounding just how state workers receive pay raises dropped in volume as little money was available for the raises. But the intensity revived during the past couple weeks since the results of the new system were released.
While rhetoric about state government employee evaluations focuses on pay, Shannon Templet, director of State Civil Service, said that was not the sole purpose of the change-up and that results from the new evaluation system are not out of the ordinary, only the expectations of some critics are.
“The data we have shows that those ratings are in line with private business,” she said.
Templet points to the findings of a general industry salary survey by the New York-based Towers Watson & Co., an international professional human resources consulting firm, that show 94.8 percent of private industry employers found their workforce performed pretty much the same as Louisiana’s.
The goal was to make evaluations more uniform and to judge employees more on specific tasks related to the agency’s mission, rather than rely on how the supervisor felt about any particular worker, Templet said.
For instance, the job description for a building inspector includes the requirements that inspections are scheduled no more than one week in advance; that inspections follow the department’s checklist; that inspection reports are completed within 10 days; and that interactions with the staff of the facility while inspected are professional and polite.
Templet says bosses can easily determine if the inspectors under their supervision accomplished those tasks. “They either did it or they didn’t,” Templet said, adding that such a checklist ratchets down the possibility of evaluations being weighted more toward personal feelings.
In addition to more objective criteria, the performance evaluation system created a secondary review of the decision and required all evaluations across state government to take place for work done during a specific time period.
The new evaluations came about partly because state government had evolved into a system in which virtually every state employee received an automatic 4 percent increase, which was more than the cost of living rose, said Robert Scott, the head of the Public Affairs Research Council of Louisiana. PAR has been studying civil service for some time and found that government leaders were using the system that rewards merit to give larger, across-the-board increases than the much more modest cost-of-living upgrades would suggest.
“It was seen as an expensive way to go about it,” Scott said. “We’ve fluctuated from one bad system to another bad system. That has been the source of ongoing frustration.”
Jindal initially pushed to give the heads of state agencies, most of whom are chosen by the governor, more leeway to decide who should receive pay raises and how much. His “pay for performance” plan linked specific evaluations to the percentage of the annual pay bump. For instance, instead of a flat 4 percent raise across the board, those workers achieving expectations would get 3 percent, while outstanding employees would get 5 percent.
Facing another tough budget year, the Jindal administration also recommended that the evaluation system also be used to determine who gets laid off.
But those ideas ran into widespread criticism, saying the proposal smacked of the spoils system. “We have not had this kind of political interference with the commission in all the years I’ve served,” then Civil Service Commission Chairman James Smith said in February 2010.
Burl Cain, the longtime warden of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola and the workers’ representative on the Civil Service Commission, repeated stories about how his parents had to pay state officials for their civil service jobs.
After much debate and negotiation, the more direct linkage between grades, pay raise amounts and layoffs were removed and in December 2011, Jindal approved the performance evaluation now used.
State Rep. James Armes, a Democratic member of the House Appropriations Committee with a lot of civil servants among his Leesville-area constituents, says he was never persuaded that changing the system legislatively would work and the results seem to underscore that belief.
The laws and rules already provide civil service supervisors an avenue for rewarding outstanding employees and motivating or eliminating those who don’t perform well.
“The problem is they don’t use them. Supervisors don’t call weak employees in and talk to them,” Armes said. “I don’t know that legislation can address that.”
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