The State Worker

Bureaucrats take on bureaucracy

One of the 1,022 pages of a job-by-job review of California’s civil-service classification system.
One of the 1,022 pages of a job-by-job review of California’s civil-service classification system. Courtesy State Personnel Board

Think of hacking through a jungle with a butter knife and you’ll begin to appreciate the sheer fortitude five women exhibited over three long months last year as they picked their way through California’s tangled job classification system.

Lorna Fong, who retired after 34 years handling state human resources, led the team on a mission to suggest which of the state’s 3,666 job titles could be whacked, which could be rewritten and which should be kept and consolidated.

They asked questions like this: Does the state really need 27 pay levels for prison math teachers? How about forensic toxicologists I, II, III and IV? The Technology, Trade and Commerce Agency was abolished 11 years ago, so why are its job classes still on the books?

“We were amazed by that one,” Fong said.

Simplifying the system won’t cure the state’s ailments, but it would signal that government values efficiency and wants to make itself more available to outsiders currently mystified when they apply for a state job. It would also cut down on needless, costly testing for promotions between jobs with little real difference. And it would clear out the clutter of tailor-made job classifications that sometimes were devised by a department with a single person in mind.

“Improvement of any type would benefit the state,” Fong said in an interview this week, because under the current system “we’re not getting the best candidates.”

Here’s how painfully knotted state civil service has become: Some members on the job classification team, with nearly 200 years of state service among them, have friends and family who would like to apply for state work, “and they’re struggling to try to figure out the system,” Fong said.

Her team started with 3,666 job classifications and whittled it down to about 2,000, glad that they were retirees. They had all the knowledge and experience of their decades with the state without feeling any obligation to protect any department or any job class. They were like a bureaucratic hit team.

No mercy. No obligations. Just cut, change, consolidate using experience, deep knowledge of the state and common sense.

“It didn’t matter if a classification was in only one department and had been there for decades,” Fong said. “The irony is that if we were all still working in our respective departments we might have felt protective of some positions.”

She expects departments and some unions will push back. The bureaucracy doesn’t embrace change. Changes to rank-and-file classes will have to be negotiated. Labor and governors over the years have added classes so that employees could be promoted up for more pay. It’s a way to avoid calling the higher salaries a “raise.”

Regardless of the outcome, Fong says the task was a chance to fix a problem that frustrated her when she worked for the state full time.

“This was truly quite rewarding,” she said, pausing. “As weird as that sounds.”

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

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