In Los Angeles, the Next Mayor Must Fix a Broken Civil Service System

Civil Service came to Los Angeles in 1907. It’s given the City a stable, if less-than-efficient, employment system. And while Angelenos would surely not prefer the corrupt “spoils system,” they know Civil Service hasn’t always met expectations.

As a former City employee, I agree with those who say Civil Service is now failing the people of Los Angeles. But historically, it’s not the system that’s failed the people; it’s the leaders who administered the system that failed the people.

Consider: In 1938, Mayor Frank Shaw was accused of selling jobs in the City’s Fire and Police Departments. He was recalled and replaced by Judge Fletcher Bowron. As Mayor, Bowron fired the whole Civil Service Department: the Commissioners, the General Manager, and the employees.

In 1945, Mayor Bowron signed an ordinance directing the Civil Service Commission to establish performance standards for all City jobs. But after 60+ years, no performance standards have been established. The work of City employees is still not evaluated, as managers continue to rely on unreliable, trait-based ratings.

From 1961 to 1973, Mayor Yorty’s Civil Service Commission focused its attention on “keeping out the unfit.” But in pursuit of that goal, it adopted examination requirements and hiring policies that unfairly limited employment opportunities for women and minorities.

In 1973, Mayor Bradley launched a major effort to ensure the job-relatedness of all City employment practices. He directed all department managers to install job-related performance appraisal systems, and published the Supervisor’s Guide to Performance Appraisal to help them. When Bradley retired, the Guide was buried.

In 1993, Richard Riordan was elected Mayor of Los Angeles. He turned the civil service system into a collection of independent departments. He made managers more powerful, and less accountable. He marginalized the City Administrative Office, the Personnel Department, and the Board of Civil Service Commissioners.

The current Mayor, Antonio Villaraigosa, has been in office for 7 ½ years. He was quick to support the “Riordan Paradigm.” He’s done nothing to fix the broken civil service system he inherited, and he’s not likely to do that in his last 6 months.

The next Mayor of Los Angeles must begin immediately to restore the people’s trust in City government. He/she must admit that the City Charter, approved by the people, was changed without their vote. “That was wrong,” the new Mayor must declare, “Critics see the change as a mayoral power-grab; it cannot stand.”

What’s needed now is a Board of Civil Service Commissioners with expertise in Human Resource Management. Such a Board could fix the City’s broken civil service system. And with strong mayoral support, it could raise the level of HRM throughout the entire City organization.

Over time, an HRM-knowledgeable Board of Civil Service Commissioners could help department heads make full use of the strengths employees bring to the job. That would enhance employee productivity and help control the cost of City government. And that would be good news for the taxpayers of Los Angeles!

Send your questions and comments to samuelmsperling@yahoo.com.