Thursday, March 6, 2014

Cameron Smith: "Last in, first out" rewards length of service over performance

  At the end of 2013, Governor Bentley outlined the results of his efforts to reduce cost and increase efficiency in state government. Bentley stated that Alabamians elected him and the Republican-controlled legislature to "make state government more efficient and live within our means without raising taxes or cutting essential services." Part of that effort included savings from "right-sizing" the state’s workforce. Unfortunately, the outdated personnel policy of "last-in, first-out," or "LIFO" means that Alabama’s reduced workforce may not necessarily be the best it could be.

  Tight budgets in Alabama have meant tough choices for Alabama’s elected leaders at every level of government. While the decisions are challenging, the options are relatively straightforward. Either Alabama’s political leaders increase taxes to continue paying for the spending habits of prior officials, or they decrease the size of government through attrition and reductions in the state’s workforce. Unfortunately for those who prefer to simply impose new taxes on Alabamians, tax increases rank somewhere behind gun control laws, Obamacare, and root canals in terms of their popularity.

  At the same time, even the most reform-minded politicians would rather avoid directly discussing public personnel issues, especially when it comes to reductions in force. The reason is obvious. If a politician’s efforts to streamline government result in someone losing their job, there is a good chance the politician loses their vote as well. Nevertheless, reining in state, local, and education workforces to operate within revenue limits means the likely elimination of at least some government jobs. Alabamians may have radically different opinions about the right size of state government and how to fund it, but everyone has a stake in promoting public personnel policies that prioritize performance criteria over largely unrelated employment factors.

  For example, take the policy at Geneva County Schools. In the event of a reduction in force, seniority in the system is considered first, then the education degrees held by the teacher, then total years experience in education, and finally, which employee has the lower Social Security number. At no point does the policy even mention consideration of an employee’s effectiveness as a teacher.

  Geneva County Schools is sadly not the only government entity in Alabama with personnel practices driven by outmoded LIFO policies. The Personnel Board of Jefferson County only includes "efficiency ratings" as a tiebreaker after seniority, and the Mobile County Personnel Board also relies heavily on seniority to determine layoffs. Other examples are not difficult to find.

  Personnel policies that heavily or exclusively embrace the LIFO model treat teachers and state and local employees like interchangeable cogs in a government machine. In practice, we know this is not the case. Government employees run the gamut on performance just like their counterparts in the private sector. Some of Alabama’s best employees may be the newest hires. They might also be the longest serving in their field. The point is that we should focus on the quality of their work rather than the blind assumption that those with career longevity are necessarily the best public employees.

  Alabama’s elected leaders have been forced to make public employment decisions that have consequences for real people. They should not be taken lightly or casually. An important part of that is giving teachers and state and local employees the confidence that their job performance matters when reductions in force are necessary.

  While "seniority" might be a better factor than Social Security numbers, Alabama’s legislators would be wise to end the practice of seniority-driven layoffs and ensure that all levels of state government consider employee performance, even in the face of difficult fiscal decisions.

  About the author: Cameron Smith is vice president and general counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, an independent, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families. He may be reached at camerons[at] or on Twitter @DCameronSmith.

  This article was published by the Alabama Policy Institute.

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