The State Worker

California’s civil service changes aim for a millennial workforce

Marybel Batjer in her office near the Capitol in 2013.
Marybel Batjer in her office near the Capitol in 2013. Sacramento Bee file

Marybel Batjer says her year-by-year task overhauling the way California state government works is like “fixing the pipes” in an old building.

If it goes well, taxpayers and workers alike won’t even notice that their 166-year-old state government has a fresh face, some new energy and a legion of eager employees.

“The heat comes on. Sometimes it’s too hot. Sometimes it’s too cool, but I don’t know anything that’s going on with the pipes,” she said, describing her effort to modernize state civil service from her office across the street from the Capitol.

Batjer three years ago took the reins of the Department of Government Operations, a seat that gave her influence over the employees who work across state departments in behind-the-scenes assignments like human resources and information technology.

She brought a diverse résumé as a former policy adviser to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and executive at the casino giant Caesars Entertainment who started her career in the Pentagon during the Reagan administration.

In her latest post, Batjer championed an initiative called civil service improvement that aims to modernize how the state hires. So far, that effort has led to revamped human resources websites, new openings in the state workforce for mid-career private sector employees and a consolidation of 700 obsolete state job titles.

She has more to come. Over the next couple years, Batjer wants to strike more redundant job titles from state records, improve the training managers receive when they’re promoted and shrink the amount of time it takes for state agencies to hire. She spoke with The Bee recently to catch up on where civil service improvement stands.

Q: Have you accomplished the easy things you could manage – like eliminating job titles no one was using – and are you now into a more difficult phase?

A: I would say all of this is hard. Processes are difficult. To remake processes takes time, but it’s just a discipline. If you put your mind to it, it can be done.

Q: What did you notice when you started?

A: Literally the first week I was here the fiscal officer brought in a time sheet. It was the same time sheet I had signed when I was chief deputy of fair employment and housing in 1992. I said, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. We’re still signing these things? This is still a wet signature on a time-sheet. Oh good lord.’

With that in mind, I took a look at our HR operations. I came quickly to realize that although there had been several attempts over several administrations to make improvements to the civil service system, not much happened. We’re still living in a civil service system that was developed in the 1960s, ’70s and maybe the 1980s.

Q: You’ve been adapting websites and job descriptions to appeal to younger workers. You’ve also been concerned that entrance exams for certain jobs dissuaded some talented candidates. How might they be changed?

A: We’re reworking the entire system. It’s not just revising the test; it’s revising the system that requires a test.

Our constitution establishes that merit will be ascertained by an examination. Everything we do is by merit. It’s not the good old 1930s, where political patronage is what drives the system. However, in this new century, how are we employing people based on the merit system in a way that is more in tune with what a millennial would expect with a new employer, not a baby boomer?

We are changing how we recruit. We are changing how exams are done online. We’re changing in some cases what an exam means. It’s not like a timed test – put your pens up, put your pens down – it’s a list of questions that are more appropriate for the job you’re applying for.

Q: Should we watch for any milestones in the coming year?

A: One of the things we are working really hard on is training. During the recession, training is another one of these things that was cut. We’re going to protect training in the future. When we have the next budgetary period that’s difficult, training is not going to take the hit. It’s got to be part of the backbone of what we do.

We’re working on a curriculum of leadership. We don’t need to teach people how to read the state administrative manual. We need to teach people how to resolve conflicts, what to get out of a meeting, how to really be a good supervisor and get the best out of their employees.

Q: I’ve heard from state workers who want updates on civil service improvement because they haven’t seen much news about it. Why do they feel they’re under-informed about this reorganization?

A: They haven’t seen all the activity at the front end, which would be a new hire. If you talk to someone going through the process today, that process is different.

If someone is interested in advancing, they will see the training they take as a supervisor will be different, and I hope much more valuable than the one their colleagues took three years ago. If you’re a hiring manager you will feel change, and you’re going to feel more change in the coming months.

Q: You’ve been in the Pentagon and in California state government. Which agency is more difficult to change?

A: The good thing is I didn’t have to change much at the Pentagon. Big systems, big bureaucracies, it takes devotion and discipline to change. Most important, it’s not just change for change’s sake. It’s change for value.

I want great ideas, I want things that are pragmatic and practical, that will make civil service the best it can be.

I want us to be the employer of choice, not the default. I want the environmental scientist to come to work for California because he or she wants to change the world, because where else to do it?

Adam Ashton: 916-321-1063, @Adam_Ashton

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