This is the first day of the rest of my life. I’m almost 84 years old, and I’m fully aware that I’m living on borrowed time. I don’t know how much time I have left, but as an American, I do know the country I’ll be leaving is now a better place to live than it was the day I was born.
On the other hand, as a retired Los Angeles city employee, I must report that the civil service system I’ll be leaving behind is not more effective than it was in 1958, when I hooked up with it.
The truth is, virtually no one in the city organization believes civil service is as well-managed as it can be. Indeed, everyone I talk with knows there are a number of ways to improve civil service in Los Angeles. Yet, no one has been willing to say that openly.
By failing to acknowledge improvement possibilities, city leaders — the mayor, the council, the personnel department, the Board of Civil Service Commissioners, and the 40-some appointing authorities — put their credibility on the line. By their inaction, they are making civil service a haven for mediocrity. They’re setting a bad example for employees. They’re making it difficult for Angelenos to trust their government.
But why would city leaders continue to defend the status quo? Maybe they fear that if they admit the city’s employment system could be improved, they’ll have to explain why it took them so long to recognize existing improvement possibilities. Or maybe those leaders are simply not open to change. Or maybe they’re waiting for complaints from concerned/ angry constituents.
Since my retirement in 1986, I’ve been trying to persuade city leaders that improving the management of employee performance could benefit everyone, including department heads, employees and taxpayers. I’ve pointed out that well over half the city budget goes for employees — that employees are the city’s most valuable, most expensive asset —that mismanaging employee performance wastes tax dollars.
In addition to defining the problem, I’ve proposed solutions. I’ve suggested a few, simple steps that any responsible department head could take to begin improving the management of employee performance. As I see it, a logical first step in making civil service work for the people of Los Angeles would be to improve the way civilian employees are selected. My suggestion would let department heads focus on probationary ratings. A simple field test could be conducted without additional funding or personnel. And it could be limited to a few appointments in a single work unit.
With my life winding down, I recall the words of Horace Mann, the first secretary of education for the state of Massachusetts: “We should be ashamed to die until we’ve won a victory for mankind.” My hope is that, before I leave this planet, some city leader will agree to field-test a Tasks & Standards approach to probationary ratings.
And that, dear reader, is why I’m requesting your help. All I ask is that you call Mayor Villaraigosa, (213) 978-0600 and ask him to read and respond to this column, OK?
Contact Samuel Sperling at samuelmsperling@Yahoo.com.