The State Worker

California HR chief exemplifies government change

Want a state job? Can’t figure out how to apply? Maybe you’re in state government. Your department seems like a grinding, bureaucratic machine and you’re just grease.

Richard Gillihan says he understands. It’s his job to fix all that. And more.

“We’re our own worst enemy” when it comes to the state’s byzantine hiring practices, said the 46-year-old director of the California Department of Human Resources. “None of this makes sense.”

As an employer, he said, the state needs “to make it easier for people to do their jobs, make it easier for them to be successful. Which means looking at some of the unnecessary bureaucracy that has existed for decades ... and the proper application of technology in the workplace.”

Gillihan heads into 2015 as Gov. Jerry Brown’s point man for a sweeping – and occasionally sputtering – government reorganization project launched nearly four years ago. It includes demystifying the hiring process, changing the state’s workplace culture and replenishing experience and leadership lost as waves of baby boomers retire. And making state government a welcoming employer that can vie with Intel, Google, federal agencies and local governments for the brightest minds. And hold down costs. Brown is a well-known penny pincher.

Not long ago, directors focused more on labor relations, especially union contracts. The post was filled by a string of labor-relations types and department insiders. Four came and went in five years. Three of the four were retirement age or close to it. The other came out of retirement and lasted about a year.

“It is a thankless job where policy and politics come together each and every day,” said Dave Gilb, who retired as director in 2009, “and the only thing you can count on for sure is that at the end of every work day someone is going to be mad at you.”

Brown’s government “reorg” ladled more duties to the position. Gillihan’s predecessor, longtime department manager Julie Chapman, abruptly retired in February, the same week a state report said “those in the highest levels of the department need to have the broad skill set that is needed to effectively manage the array of services they provide.”

Enter Gillihan, who joined the state as an entry-level technology staffer, rose through civil service and eventually landed at the Department of Finance. There, he oversaw the state’s biggest technology projects and developed expertise in projecting statewide employee costs – pensions, health care and salaries. He also got involved in contract bargaining.

Gillihan knows state employment from the lowest rung. He’s young, so retirement isn’t competing for his devotion to the job. He knows money and tech.

Gillihan embodies change at the top. Will it filter down?

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043. For more columns, go to