Director, Center for Independent Journalism

Ray Carter is the director of OCPA’s Center for Independent Journalism. He has two decades of experience in journalism and communications. He previously served as senior Capitol reporter for The Journal Record, media director for the Oklahoma House of Representatives, and chief editorial writer at The Oklahoman.

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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In his State of the State speech this week, Gov. Kevin Stitt said he wants to gradually make all positions in state government “at will” jobs, much like those at most private-sector companies. A new study from the State Chamber Research Foundation shows the state of Georgia has successfully handled a similar transition.

Oklahoma’s civil service system was created in 1959 with the last significant update to the system occurring in 1982. Under the Oklahoma Merit System of Personnel Administration, “classified” state government employees receive protections for their job above and beyond those typically found in the private sector through the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission. Oklahoma government had a total of 31,674 state employees at the close of the 2018 budget year, and 65 percent were in classified positions, meaning employees had certain property rights associated with a job. However, the foundation notes some agencies are almost entirely “at will” today, while other agencies are at the other end of the spectrum, with little apparent rhyme or reason.

Stitt’s 2020 agenda includes reforming the state workforce system.

“The state’s current civil service program is broken,” Stitt told lawmakers this week. “High-quality employees are forced into a system that doesn’t maximize their professional growth and potential. Agency leaders have their hands tied in who they can hire and promote due to outdated restrictions. Today, I am calling for reform that requires all new hires in state government, moving forward, to be unclassified.”

In addition, under Stitt’s plan, agency directors could offer bonuses to employees who agree to promotions into unclassified positions.

Through the resulting attrition, Stitt estimated “the majority of the state’s workforce” could be unclassified positions within five years.

“A Comparative Analysis of States’ Civil Service Reforms,” a report conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration for the State Chamber of Oklahoma Research Foundation, provides examples of similar reform from other states. The report notes, “Given the rapidly changing roles and responsibilities of government, there is growing recognition that traditional merit systems impose constraints that may no longer meet the needs of 21st-century governments.”

The report reviewed reform efforts in six states, but a release from the State Chamber of Oklahoma Research Foundation noted that Georgia’s reform most closely resembles Stitt’s proposal.

Georgia’s major reforms were first enacted in 1995 and 1996 under a Democratic governor.

“Georgia’s 1996 civil service reform removed civil service protections and established an ‘at-will’ employment system,” the report notes. “State employees hired after July 1, 1996, are unclassified employees. Classified employees hired prior to that date retain their status and positions. Classified employees who are promoted into unclassified positions lose their classified status.”

Through that attrition system, comparable to the proposal unveiled by Stitt this week, Georgia’s state government gradually shifted from a workforce dominated by merit-protected employees to one filled with “at will” workers.

“Twenty-three years after the law was enacted, Georgia’s state government has 67,782 employees, 98 percent of whom are at-will,” the Chamber report notes.

In addition, Georgia’s reform increased flexibility in state hiring.

“One of the primary goals of the 1996 reform was to improve the effectiveness and efficiency of the recruitment and hiring process,” the report states. “Agencies are expected to make merit-based hiring decisions and are allowed to choose their own methods and processes for recruitment. In general, agencies have adopted a resume-based, competitive hiring process.”

Two major measures have been filed this year to implement state workforce reforms in Oklahoma: Senate Bill 1780, by Senate President Pro Tempore Greg Treat, R-Oklahoma City, and House Bill 3094, by Rep. Mike Osburn, R-Edmond.

Osburn conducted an interim study on the Merit Protection System in November. At that hearing, he said, “We have to update our human resource and personnel management laws or we are not being accountable to the people of Oklahoma, and we are not being good stewards of the money they have entrusted to us.”

The Oklahoma Public Employees Association (OPEA) has voiced opposition to Stitt’s plan. On the association’s Twitter feed, OPEA officials declared, “Unclassifying state employees is a nonstarter” and that the association “will fight any merit reforms that excludes independent due process for state employees.”

On its Facebook page, the OPEA stated, “The system can be streamlined but we must have processes in place to protect good employees who need that protection to do their jobs. We must not return to a system that uses state jobs as political favors.”

Director, Center for Independent Journalism

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