Walker sees merit in meritocracy -- if it's partisan-based and elitest | WisCommunity

Walker sees merit in meritocracy -- if it's partisan-based and elitest

What could possibly go wrong? Gov. Scott Walker so far isn't saying.

We're not referring to the John Doe investigation that implicates Walker as a central figure in a criminal conspiracy. Rather we're talking about his administration's "discretionary merit compensation" (DMC) program to award certain state employees with one-time bonuses and/or permanent raises, often in amounts well beyond those given to most state employees under general raises, when there are any. The program is "discretionary" because it's up to managers in each state agency to decide who in their shops deserve the money every year. And so far some of those "merit" decisions seem awfully arbitrary.

What could go wrong with such a program of picking winners and losers? Well, for one thing, you only need to look at the U.S. Veterans Administration, where an incentive pay program led to some employees striving to meet minimum requirements by cooking the books on how many veterans were on waiting lists for care. For another, in the State of Wisconsin merit plan, the standards and specific data used to decide who did great work are, as far as the public is concerned, virtually secret.

It's surely good, in principle, to award achievement. But in many cases, Wisconsin DMC awards are very subjective. In fact, they are in theory based on employee performance reviews, which themselves are quite subjective. You can get dinged for poor performance that involves very minor or actually nonexistent violations of department policy, while another employee gets rewarded despite similar activity. The system tends to create a two-tiered class of employees, with the greater group (those not rewarded) left embittered or demoralized. That'll really get the job done, huh?

Those and other structural defects in merit systems are why civil service and collective bargaining became norms in the public sector for decades -- everyone got a fair day's pay for a fair day's work, yet provisions were in place to weed out discipline problems or poor performance. No more. It's all top down, now, and it's not as though managers don't have their pet pupils and biases. Shut up and keep your nose to the grindstone, and kiss some butt occasionally -- otherwise, what we got is fail-yah ta communicate.

Worse yet, it's already clear that Walker's new DMC program -- which is similar to one that his Democratic predecessor Jim Doyle ran until, ironically, he ended it in 2008 to balance the budget -- has had an unfortunate tendency to reward a lot more managers than you'd expect -- the very class of state employees who are responsible for handing out the awards to everyone. Which may explain why in the first round of DMCs, last budget cycle, only one in every 14 state employees received merit bonuses or raises. Those few who did get awards averaged 6.52 percent, while most everyone else in state government (with exceptions, including still-unionized law enforcement officers whom Walker exempted from his union-busting law) was stuck with a one percent annual raise, in many cases their first raise in five years. 

In theory, DMCs are part of a program to retain skilled, veteran state employees and their valuable expertise, in an era where such employees increasingly are quitting or retiring earlier. Some of those departees end up in similar private-sector jobs earning much more, sometimes even coming back to serve as private consultants to the state, doing the same work but costing Wisconsin taxpayers more for the same work. Reviewing last year's DMC awards, the Wisconsin State Journal reported that:

Some experts in compensation systems warned the pay increases may not have reached enough employees to prevent losses of valuable workers, while a union leader complained of favoritism by managers that was creating jealousy and friction among co-workers... .

"Gov. Walker looks forward to continuing to create an environment that allows hard-working, high-achieving, and outstanding employees at both the state and local levels to be financially rewarded," [spokesman] Cullen Werwie said. "He will work to keep the best and the brightest employees."

Then, the governor went ahead and pushed through a state budget giving the vast majority of state employees slightly more than zip in the way of raises, after badly dinging their pocketbooks in his earlier budget with givebacks and wage freezes. Like we said, what could possibly go wrong? Here's one likelihood, again from the State Journal:

Without more pay raises for more workers, however, the state will lose more of its most valuable workers as the recession lifts and pay increases in the private sector, said Charles Carlson, a compensation expert for a management consulting firm in Middleton.

"Wisconsin just has very, very good public employees and we have very good public services," Carlson said. "You have skilled engineers and scientists and accountants. You could say, well you just replace them with someone else, but they are very difficult to replace with all their experience and expertise."

Hilariously, no one in Walker's camp seems to think this program is anything but good -- except when there are political points to be scored, in which circumstance they promptly blame the political opposition. So, when again this year the state Department of Public Instruction followed the rules of Walker's merit-award program in handing out its merit bonuses, the conservative Wisconsin Reporter web site exclusively focused its attention on that one state agency. No doubt that's because the DPI is headed by Tony Evers, an elected superintendent, unlike most state agency heads who are cabinet officers chosen by the governor.

Superintendent Evers often has found himself in contention with the governor's anti-public education policies, so, evidently, he must be doing things all wrong. Which attitude would explain why the Reporter last month seemed so flabbergasted and outraged to learn that "less than a quarter" of all DPI employees outside Evers' administrative office received DMC bonus compensation. That percentage, however, compared favorably to other agencies, a fact which the Reporter totally ignored, perhaps because those other agencies are run by good-soldier Walker appointees. In 2013, merit pay awards across all of state government went to one in seven workers.

Note to the Wisconsin Reporter: The program is designed and funded to work that way. And Tony Evers controls neither. 

The Reporter's main focus was on the fact that Evers' management team did well in this DMC round, saying more than half his deputy administrators receviing bonuses. Fair enough. Yet, similar percentages of awards to managers in other state agencies controlled by Walker were likewise being handed out -- all in accordance with the Walker prescription. The Reporter, however, simply pretended that Supt. Evers was some kind of renegade. Meanwhile, as the Wisconsin Rapids Tribune discovered, in the pool of all state employees in all agencies, "six employees received three bonuses, including State Fair Park Executive Director Richard Frenette, whose salary increased from $109,579 to $125,320 via three rate increases."

Meanwhile the vast majority of state employees, some of whom newly eligible, like Wal-Mart workers, for food stamps, were told to make due with one percent general raises for 2013 and 2014 -- which means, in terms of buying power, they are losing some more ground. Apparently, none of these workers did any meritorious work and are to remain in the economic doghouse until they do. Because, in today's Wisconsin state government, it's all about Social Darwinism -- you're either a winner or a loser. Naturally, beleaguered state employee unions object to that atttiude, as when Marty Beil, executive director of the Wisconsin State Employees Union, told the Tribune:

“We get reports from people all the time about, ‘How come I didn’t get a merit [raise]and this guy I’m working with got a merit, and we do the same thing and my evaluations are good?’... We have said from the very beginning that the way the state will apply the merit awards will create all sort of inequities in the workplace, and that’s exactly what’s happening.”

After laser-blasting DPI, the Wisconsin Reporter's "watchdog" story (available at the URL below) did go on to question the entire DMC program, implying some kind of boondoggle, but the only state administrator mentioned in connection with the program remained Evers, a nominal although friendly opponent of the guy who created and actually controls the program -- a fellow by the name of Gov. Scott Walker; whom the Reporter never mentioned in any context. Where's the merit in that, besides a partisan political one?

The Reporter ignored, just to take one example, the fact that in 2012, the state Justice Department -- controlled by J.B. Van Hollen, a Republican officeholder who is a Walker ally -- awarded DMC merit pay to Deputy Attorney General Kevin St. John. That's the guy who successfully argued the state's collecting bargaining case before the Wisconsin Supreme Court, destroying most union bargaining rights and justifying Walker moves to start whacking public employee pay and benefits -- except, in too many cases, for top brass like St. John. His merit bonus raised his annual salary that year by more than $5,000 to $134,307. Meanwhile, St. John's wife, Assistant Atty. Gen. Rebecca Rapp St. John, also received a DMC, raising her annual salary more than $4,000 to $66,844.

Not bad work if you can get it, especially if partisan enablers at outfits like the Wisconsin Reporter pay no attention whatsoever to your good fortune.

In brief, state government has moved in recent years toward a system where the rational pay-grade system for state employees has been corrupted by the demise of collective bargaining, made worse by special raises and bonuses. This is why for many years the state had a laudable civil-service system, one of the first in the country, along with the first public collective bargaining law, all designed to ensure an equitable pay system, and to resist manipulation.

Not a bad idea given government's highly political environment. But it was an idea that Walker threw out for his partisanly focused "merit" program, the execution of which is now blamed (at least by the Wisconsin Reporter) on one of the few state managers Walker doesn't have in his pocket.

Meanwhile, when Walker goes before the voters this fall in a bid for a second term as governor, his own personal meritocracy -- or, more accurately, his de-meritocracy -- will consist of tens of millions of dollars funneled to his campaign and friendly third-party campaign organizations, all based on the myth of his wise stewardship. Because under Walkerism, merit in practice mostly only matters if you're on the right side of the politically partisan dividing line.


June 21, 2014 - 1:07pm