Note: This blog draws in part on my experiences and observations interviewing political figures, writers, and analysts for "The Campbell Conversations" on WRVO. To hear past interviews I refer to in these posts, please go to the show's website. The views expressed here are solely my own, and do not represent Syracuse University, the Campbell Institute, or the WRVO Stations.

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Saturday, January 8, 2011

Feature Guest Post -- An Outsider-to-Insider View of the State Budget Crisis and State Employees: The Civil Premium

The following is a guest post by Michael O'Bryan.  Michael is an Investigator with the state's Labor Department.  Prior to that, he was Director of the Solutions Delivery Group at AppliedTheory Corporation.  He's also worked for AT&T.  Michael is married to a NYS employee, and lives in Manlius, New York.

I have been a Civil servant since July 20, 2009. I work with people who have all been doing their respective jobs for far longer than me.
New York State inaugurated Andrew Cuomo this week, and my fellow State employees and I are waiting for the real impact of the new administration to be delivered.
What’s more than a little weird for me is the calmness I feel with the reality that some soulless, faceless administrator will send a message, or initiate a process, that will snuff out some meaningful number of jobs – and the lives that are connected to them. I’m calm from having lived through this going back as far as the early ‘90’s. The “outside world”, as I describe it to my state brethren, has been like this for some time.
Even though there have been layoffs of state workers before (oddly enough in the previous Cuomo administration), the insecurity associated with impending force reductions is alien to folks who started with the state after the ‘80’s. These employees have devoted their careers to the navigation of the Civil Service world. If nothing else, the overall structure provided a level of certainty that made other aspects of government work (like lower average wages) tolerable. They have benefited from Civil Service. What was once a rigid structure in a job-rich outside economy has evolved into a premium of protection. The Civil Service premium.
But now, as we are all being told, “everything has to be on the table”. And the ruthlessness of corporate efficiency and economies of scale is about to be applied to a population of workers who are by and large ill-equipped to manage it. This is not about Union vs. Management so much as it is about the erosion of a culture. Being new to it all, I can see the opportunities for process improvement, the need for operational behavior changes, and the woefully inadequate state of technology. But in fairness to the members of both management and non-management, there has never been any necessity, much less incentive, for change. Until the last 2 – 3 years, anyway.
I hope Governor Cuomo can establish some credibility as he goes about his transformation of the state bureaucracy. I wonder how he will gain credibility with the Unions, as he will undoubtedly place connected colleagues in $100K+ Director / Commissioner positions that are pure patronage. I wonder how he will gain credibility with Management, as he goes about forcing more work on lower level Managers and Assistant Directors, due to the fact that functional positions have been eliminated while the work has remained.
And I truly wonder about his ability to be credible to a Legislature as profoundly dysfunctional and corrupt as New York’s. Our current Legislature is likely 3 – 5 overall terms away from the necessary turnover that would begin to break down the fiefdoms, on both sides of the aisle, that contribute mightily to the state’s current condition.
The people doing the real work will be the population that will face the real requirements to change their day-to-day working behaviors. They will be the ones who will have no choice but to change. And they will do it, as they are the ones, who actually deliver services; who drive disabled people to the doctor; who process registrations; who help people find jobs; who investigate fraud; who teach your kids; who inspect bridges; and, even those who collect taxes.
While people who will never have to worry about their own retirement circumstances rail on about state worker pensions, keep that in mind. There is more that needs fixing in New York than what will be solved by firing working people.

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