The State Worker

California HR director tackles lengthy to-do list

Richard Gillihan took the state’s top personnel job last year amid turmoil. On Wednesday, he seeks Senate confirmation as state Department of Human Resources director after a report last week took his agency to task for poor employee planning.

Still, he’ll likely sail through the hearing unscathed. He has Gov. Jerry Brown’s blessing. CalHR, which leads the state’s 150 department personnel shops, has made some behind-the-scenes progress. And, according to former state HR director Dave Gilb, Gillihan brings a skill set to the job that the government desperately needs.

Brown named him acting director when Julie Chapman abruptly retired from the post last year. Her exit came the same week that a Little Hoover Commission report blasted CalHR for not executing the governor’s plan to upgrade the state’s personnel business.

The problems identified by that scathing 2014 assessment haven’t changed much from the outside. For example, you still need the vocational equivalent of a Sherpa to navigate the state’s twisted hiring process. The state’s job website is a friendly as a cat is to a mouse.

Then last week a state audit noted that departments lack clear plans for recruiting the next generation of employees, bad news since roughly 4 in 10 state workers are 50 or older. They don’t have written plans to maximize current employees’ productivity, either. CalHR is supposed to lead the way on those matters.

Gillihan has made progress. He’s simplifying the state job catalog by axing hundreds of unneeded job titles and rewriting others. He’s overseeing an overhaul of the website to make it more user-friendly. And, like his predecessors, he’s trying to prod more employee planning.

Let’s face it: Bringing the state’s fractured civil service corps to personnel pre-eminence is daunting, like chipping away at an iceberg with a toothpick.

CalHR “has little statutory authority to dictate change” said Gilb, who headed the department under Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and doesn’t have the staff to conduct wide-ranging audits,“so you advise, counsel and suggest.”

It’s tough to talk about employee retention when state pay lags for lawyers, scientists, computer programmers and other high-skill, high-education positions. That’s a CalHR thing, too. It negotiates state salaries with unions.

Long-term planning and change goes against government’s obstinate culture, the short-term cycles of election politics and the boom-bust economy that makes it virtually impossible to think past next year’s budget, Gilb said. None of that is Gillihan’s fault.

And at 46, he may be the state’s best hope for change. Unlike other CalHR directors who came out of labor relations, his background also includes time in state technology and finance.

“This isn’t simply an HR job,” Gilb said. “You need someone like Richard who can see the bigger picture.”

The Senate on Wednesday will almost certainly agree.