Oklahoma’s civil service modernization explained
By Christa Helfrey
State government is one of the largest employers in Oklahoma, with an approximate 33,000-person workforce that serves the state’s most important customers: citizens. Public service operates best when carried out by passionate, skilled employees. Attracting and retaining motivated individuals is a core focus for state leaders and is essential to effective government.
Post pandemic, civil service reform has been an ongoing priority nationwide. To advance Oklahoma, the Legislature passed the Civil Service and Human Capital Modernization Act in 2021, eliminating the antiquated merit protection system and opening the door to a new era of state government operations.
WHY WAS IT NEEDED?
Oklahoma adopted the merit system in 1959, following the federal trend of separating state employees from political patronage and driving competence as the basis for employment. Over time, however, merit protection proved inflexible and bound state agencies in bureaucratic red tape. The very thing that protected employees from political turnover prevented agencies from rewarding high-performing employees and made it time-consuming and costly to dismiss under-performing employees. Additionally, the number of classified employees varied drastically from agency to agency and led to inconsistent personnel practices.
The last significant update to the merit system happened in 1982, creating the Oklahoma Merit Protection Commission. The commission’s primary function was to provide a dispute resolution system and investigate employment appeals from state employees and applicants. However, concerns arose over the length of the appeals process, which could last from a few months to several years.
In 2021, innovation was on many minds following the COVID-19 pandemic. Seeing the opportunity to modernize personnel practices, meet the needs of a modern workforce and make the State of Oklahoma a more competitive employer, the Legislature passed HB 1146.
The bill, authored by Rep. Mike Osburn and Sen. Greg Treat, established the Civil Service and Human Capital Modernization Act and created the Civil Service Division under the Office of Management and Enterprise Services, which oversees the state’s human capital procedures.
This change abolished employee classifications and the Merit Protection Commission to streamline the state’s personnel practices. Eliminating the merit system emphasized performance and skill-based criteria in hiring and promotion decisions. Ultimately, ensuring the most qualified individuals are selected for positions creates a more professional and efficient public body better equipped to serve the needs of citizens.
Part of improving personnel practices meant establishing a consistent employment complaint process. CSD took the reins on that process, helping state agencies and employees resolve conflicts related to disciplinary actions, on Jan. 1, 2022. For complaints about written reprimands, wrongful terminations, suspensions without pay, involuntary demotions or alleged punitive transfers, CSD offers mediation services facilitated by civil mediators certified by the Oklahoma Supreme Court. If a dispute is not resolved through mediation, CSD organizes, prepares and schedules a formal hearing process with an administrative law judge. Further, agencies are now responsible for their own internal investigations of complaints that don’t fall under those categories.
CSD encourages mediation – which is confidential, saves time and money, and offers more room for collaboration – as an alternative to formal hearings that can add up steep legal fees and damage professional relationships.
“The mediation program provides an avenue for complainants who cannot afford an attorney to resolve their issues quickly,” Foster said. “Additionally, it allows us to help individuals to work together to reach a mutual resolution instead of opposing each other as adversaries in court.”
Under the new process, employees have 10 business days from an event to file a complaint with CSD, who must then complete the case within 30 business days of receiving it. Civil Service Division Director Stacey Foster said she takes pride in her team meeting this new standard.
“It’s a tight turnaround, but it’s our program’s biggest benefit to the state,” she said. “The affected employees and agencies receive quick answers regarding the actions and do not have to live in limbo, sometimes for years, like they did with the Merit Protection Commission.”
In the year since its creation, CSD held 96 mediations and 18 formal hearings related to disciplinary disputes. Compared to Merit Protection Commission data from fiscal year 2020, that’s 700% more mediations and 42% fewer hearings.
Civil service reform has been a successful and beneficial initiative for the State of Oklahoma. By modernizing government personnel practices and building onto the framework established by the merit system, the state has been more effectively serving citizens. Additionally, the creation of the Civil Service Division within OMES has unified and accelerated the employee complaint process. CSD’s emphasis on mediation as an alternative to legal action has set a new standard of reaching collaborative solutions quickly while avoiding significant legal costs. As public service continues to evolve, modern personnel practices will continue to be an important tool for ensuring that the state can meet the needs of Oklahomans in an increasingly complex and rapidly changing world.
Learn more about the Civil Service Division and the dispute process at https://oklahoma.gov/omes/services/human-capital-management/civil-service.html.
Learn about other recent modernizations in the State of Oklahoma: https://oklahoma.gov/omes/media/blog/2023/a-year-in-review--10-ways-omes-enhanced-state-government-in-2022.html