Change Direction on Merit Protection

Change Direction on Merit Protection

Column by Fred Morgan, President & CEO of the State Chamber, published in The Journal Record on June 3, 2019

It’s safe to say that this year saw the most significant structural improvements to state government in our history. Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Legislature are to be commended for these improvements (Legislative Office of Fiscal Transparency, direct appointments) and recruiting top individuals to leadership positions in our state.

But with these accomplished, where do we go from here? Accountable leadership, innovation, fiscal transparency, and bold policy initiatives won’t be successful unless state agencies are staffed by qualified, effective, and efficient employees.

Now that we’ve improved our public leadership structure, the next logical move is to reform our public employment structure. The answer we suggest is to modify our state’s merit protection system.

According to the Oklahoma Office of Management Enterprise Services, around 70 percent of state workers are considered “classified” and virtually impossible to hold accountable under the current system. The original goals of the merit protection system are noble: to protect public employment from political interference and to hire, maintain, and promote employees based on their merit.

But despite the best intentions, this system has changed from protective to obstructive. The system makes it difficult to eliminate obsolete jobs and even more difficult to replace unproductive personnel. But, perhaps worst of all, it makes it nearly impossible to promote and financially reward deserving employees for exceptional job performance.

Oklahoma’s merit protection system is bureaucratic and inefficient at best. At worst, it rewards complacency and hinders excellence. If we want to continue the momentum from this session to 2020 and beyond, we need a public employment system that rewards performance.

To be clear, this article is not a criticism against all state workers. There are thousands and thousands of dedicated state workers who go to work every single day and serve our state admirably. I know because I spent time working with many of them during my career in government. They deserve a system that values their dedication, hard work, and commitment to excellence. The current merit protection system balks at this notion while an at-will system would embrace it.

In order to reach high expectations and pursue higher achievements, state agency directors need a system with a better capacity to reward deserving employees and one that makes it easier to replace underperformers.

We urge the governor and Legislature to reform our archaic merit protection system. It’s imperative that we do so to become a top 10 state.