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Pa. hiring reform puts the governor in charge: Is it a digital upgrade or power grab?

Joseph N. DiStefano, Staff Writer

Updated: Thursday, January 25, 2018, 4:33 PM

Bryan Lentz, a Philadelphia lawyer and former prosecutor, chairs the Pennsylvania Civil Service Commission. He says a plan to move key powers to the governor's office risks returning hiring for more than 50,000 state jobs to old-fashioned political patronage

A struggle over who controls hiring for more than 50,000 Pennsylvania state jobs pits the independent Civil Service Commission, set up in 1941 to guarantee the hiring of qualified state workers, against an alliance of Republican senators and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration, who want to transfer key powers to the governor’s control.

If that sounds like a strange alliance, that’s because it is. Yet, public hiring has inspired struggles and unusual coalitions for much of the state’s history.

Sens. Mike Folmer (R., Dauphin) and Randy Vulakovich (R., Allegheny) posted their plan last week for a law that would move merit-based hiring, Civil Service job applications, and job certifications, examinations, and promotions from the Civil Service Commission to the Office of Administration, whose secretary, Sharon P. Minnich, serves at the governor’s pleasure. The commission would be reduced to a hearing and appeal board.

The attempt follows the Wolf administration’s recent moves to centralize information-technology contracting review in Minnich’s department, after a series of embarrassing state IT failures that began long before Wolf took office in 2015.

Minnich, a former Deloitte Consulting executive, supports the moves to enhance her office’s powers. To fill state jobs, “we need to look like a private-sector employer when we are competing in the talent marketplace,” she told me. That means letting candidates apply via smartphone, “not go to a [state] test center to take a written exam for a position that might not be open.”

“We are trying to bring the whole system into the 21st century,” Folmer told me. He said discussions with the Civil Service Commission have not led to speedy change, so it’s time for legislators to act.

Not so fast, say the commissioners: Bryan Lentz, a Philadelphia lawyer and former prosecutor appointed by Wolf; Gregory Lane, a Harrisburg accountant appointed by Republican Gov. Tom Corbett; and Odelfa Smith Preston, a Pittsburgh banker first appointed by Gov. Ed Rendell and reappointed by Corbett and Wolf.

Stripping the commission won’t improve hiring; more likely it would mean “the reintroduction of hiring decisions based on patronage and cronyism,” the commissioners warned in a letter to Folmer.

“It’s definitely a power grab. I’m shocked at the Wolf administration,” said Marwan Kreide, a former Civil Service Commission chairman. “If they have a problem getting millennials to apply to IT jobs in Harrisburg, the state should open IT centers in Philadelphia, where college graduates want to work. But if we open up more state jobs to patronage, governors will put their own people in,” instead of hiring the most qualified.

State agencies are already in the process of implementing online written job-application systems built by NeoGov, an El Segundo, Calif., state-government contractor founded in 2000 by a couple of ex-Accenture Consulting partners.

Lentz told me that the two dozen state agencies where the commission oversees hiring have met with his staff and are implementing NeoGov applications for written tests. “But this cannot handle performance-based tests,” for corrections, probation, and other law enforcement roles in which state agency staff physically observe candidates’ reactions to potentially dangerous situations, Lentz added. (The State Police has a separate hiring system.) “So we cannot convert everything to NeoGov. Some jobs will still require performance-based or interview-based evaluation.”

Minnich said in-person tests could still be allowed for law enforcement, but “the goal is to move away from those.”

It’s the latest iteration of a long debate. According to a history of Pennsylvania public hiring by the late scholar Ari Hoogenboom, Philadelphia industrialists and reformers, including abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, campaigned for federal and state “merit hiring” systems as an antidote to post-Civil War corruption.

By the 1880s, the U.S., New York, and Massachusetts had civil service systems in place. But in Pennsylvania, it was resisted by upstate representatives who believed their election gave them a mandate to put handpicked supporters in public jobs. Merit selection was finally instituted by Gov. Gifford Pinchot in the 1920s, and the independent Civil Service Commission to oversee it was set up under Gov. Arthur James in 1941. Pinchot and James were Republicans.

In the current struggle, both sides insist their program would be better for veterans, who enjoy special preference for public jobs under state law. Despite that requirement, Lentz, a former Airborne Ranger in the 82nd Airborne who served as a reserve officer in Bosnia and Iraq, says a modest 13 percent of newly hired Pennsylvania state employees are veterans, compared with around one-third of federal government hires.

Lentz says state agencies need to be watched and audited to ensure veterans get their due, and he’s afraid that, if the commission loses its hiring powers, there will be no independent review of veteran hiring. “It waters down enforcement by taking away the possibility of independent enforcement,” he told me.

Minnich promised that Lentz’s commission will retain its auditing, investigative, and interview powers. Folmer and Minnich said that merit hiring of qualified applicants will continue.

Last Monday, Minnich defended the changes in a letter to her fellow Wolf cabinet officers.

“We’ll have a hearing. There may be some tweaks,” Folmer said. “But I was getting tired of the back and forth. I’m trying to speed up the process.”

Joseph N. DiStefano, Staff Writer

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