Improving Human Resource Management in City Service

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Los Angeles, Calif.

A recent editorial in a large metropolitan newspaper described the City of Los Angeles as a “poorly managed” city. It confirms what this column has been reporting for the past three years. As we’ve said before, the City of Los Angeles typically spends $4B a year—60 percent of its budget—for employees. And it’s good to know we’re not alone in applying the term “mismanaged” to a City which refuses to address costly personnel problems, including those described in the next 3 paragraphs.
First, there’s the problem of top-heaviness. Some City departments have too many managers and too many layers of management. Others hire nearly as many promotional employees (chiefs, principals, and seniors) as worker-level employees. And some departments use more high-pay grade jobs than the total number of positions in a given class would seem to warrant. If the goal is to cut costs wherever feasible, reducing top-heaviness would be an excellent way for City Management to begin closing its $400 million structural deficit.
Second, there’s the problem of archaic personnel practices. For example, using invalid, trait-based ratings to decide if probationers should be retained or removed allows an unknown number of poor/marginal performers to achieve career status and gain property rights to their jobs. Every time that happens, efficiency takes a hit and productivity suffers. Over time, that raises the cost of government. In Los Angeles, City Management should insist that the work of all employees—probationary and career-level—be measured against job-specific performance standards.
Then there’s the problem of under-utilized employees. Many City employees feel their skills, energy and initiative aren’t fully utilized. The Mayor and Council must know that HR experts say large service organizations often fail to get the best from their employees. They must also know that employees are more likely to give their best when they have a say in the management of their jobs. That suggests City Management should actively encourage employee participation in matters that concern them. For example, employees could be invited to help set performance standards for their own jobs. Studies indicate that performance standards set with employee participation tend to be more challenging than standards set without employee involvement.
These problems help explain the previously referenced editorial: “The city is poorly managed. Its political leaders need to devise a realistic plan for the future.” But I would add one comment: before starting to plan for the future, the Mayor and Council must undergo a complete mind-change with respect to the Civil Service System and the role to be played by its Board of Commissioners.
The ugly truth is that for the past 9½ years, a coalition of mayors, councilmembers and personnel department leaders have waged war on that system. They’ve changed Civil Service without notice, without a vote of the people and without legal authority. They’ve trampled Charter Sections which provide for an active Civil Service Board. They’ve stifled the Board, downsized its role and usurped its powers. And they apparently didn’t care that, without the Board, Civil Service rules would no longer be properly enforced, rule violations would no longer be properly investigated, and the employment practices used in City departments would simply not be monitored.
As I see it, the guilty parties owe Angelenos an apology. They must restore the Board and admit they’ve abused their powers. After they’ve done that, they can—with clean hands—begin planning for the future!